Friday, October 30, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Chakan: The Frustrating Man


Halloween still haunts the Friday Night Rentals and it's time to unleash some more supernatural gameplay with Chakan: The Foreverman.

From the Grim Reaper face to awesome looking hat, as a kid I was sold on this game just on the cover art alone.  When my family got a Sega, after years of being longtime Nintendo people, I was looking for some of those "edgy" games that Sega was known for, but nothing too edgy.  Mortal Kombat was pretty much out thanks to it's much ballyhoo'ed violence. And my folks weren't too keen on my renting a game like Toe Jam and Earl thanks to the words "Toe Jam" being in the title.  After all, it sounded like it would rely on fart jokes, and gross out humor to tell it's story.  Creepy undead things though?  For some reason those made the cut when it came to game rental time.  How else can one explain the fact I was allowed to rent any number of Castlevania games?  They might not have seemed too spooky, but still, it's something I wonder to this day.  Well, whatever the reason, there was a time when I rented Chakan:  The Forever Man.  I nabbed it a while back (I think from a retro store) because once again I was wondering if I was just too young and too impatient or if the game really was as hard as I remembered.

Yeah, it was hard.  For a Sega game, it was "Nintendo Hard."

Okay, I know that sounds weird, but let me explain a little as we go on with a little bit of memory and gaem review....


I was pleasantly surprised that Chakan looked a reasonable amount like the character on the cover.  From a day and age where sometimes you'd get a Mega Man who looked nothing like what he did on the box (thankfully) and others where Nintendo Black Box games showed exactly what you were getting into, it was nice to see that the duel-sword wielding guy from the cover was actually what I got to play as.  

Not only that, but the levels were appropriately spooky and the monsters ranged from cloaked figures, demonic lizards, and the usual rats and bats that populate every horror game it would seem.  The animations of Chakan's sword movement were great, and general walking never felt too choppy despite the larger character sprites.  Everything conveyed just the level of spookyiness you'd want from a game about an undying hero who looks like the death himself.


Chakan Full Soundtrack

I like that each stage has it's own unique music, and it has an appropriately dark tone.  Something about the drubbing intro also helps to sell you on the story that you're a deathless hero (who still can somehow run out of lives) cursed to forever fight the forces of darkness.  However, some stages have better composed music than others.  There are some that you'll wish you could burn on to an iPod for your Halloween background music, and there are others which you wish you could just mute the sound as they grow high pitched and tinny sounding in attempts to be "spine-tingling."    Overall though, the tunes are nothing you'll walk away humming.  Not to say that it's bad, just that for all the work that it does setting up the appropriate atmosphere, Chakan doesn't have any memorable tunes save maybe for the opening crawl.  I will also say this, when it came to games of this nature, games that had a darker edge to them, there was something about the Sega that gave them that extra bit of edge.  Not that they always had it over Nintendo, but sometimes I felt more creeped out by Sega music.  (In a good way.  Not a, "Please stop, my ears are bleeding" way.)


After winning a bet with death, you've been cursed to try and defeat villainous bosses and collect their powers to use on other bosses so that you might at least put your soul to rest.  Basically it's like Mega Man, only instead of robots you fight demons, monsters, and creatures from the darkest pit. Unlike Mega Man, you aren't a cheerful little blue robot and instead are an undying swordsman, cursed with eternal life as a half-death looking creature.  Good thing you've got your trusty duel swords to help you jump, slash, and stab your way to redemption and possible release from your living hell.  Too bad for you though that your hit box can sometimes feel a mile wide.  There are times when jumps and enemies feel unfairly difficult not because they pose a real challenge, but because they can kill you from a distance Donatello-style.  There are several points in the game and spaced through various levels where you need to dodge an enemy and wedge yourself between two dangerous objects/traps as they spring around you.  This leads to a ton of cheap-feeling deaths and worse, you have to restart the level from the very beginning. No checkpoint for you.  There are some good things about the control and gameplay though.  It wasn't all big hit boxes.

 I like the premise for the game and I especially like the threat or vow that Chakan states in a bit of scrolling text that proceeds a level before you enter it from the "ethereal hub world."  It's especially funny given how quickly I seem to die in this game.  All of Chakan's threats and vows seem utterly pointless and empty if the net result is that he dies and respawns in the hub world.  Chakan himself controls well enough and the directional control you have over him is fantastic.  I love being able to roll into a "death ball" or point the sword in any direction.  It's just not enough though to overcome the collision detection in my opinion.

Final Thoughts:

So now that I've played this game again and relived a little bit of my childhood Halloween rentals what do I think?

Unless I come across a game shark, I may not play this game again.  I know, I know.  It seems like I'd rather cheat than buckle down and face the challenge.  Well...that's true.  I wanted to enjoy this game.  I like the Mega Man style of weapon collection to defeat different bosses, I think the character design is great, and the premise has the Halloween feel I want.  However, it's hard to put yourself through the kind of punishment that the game dishes out.  I don't mind high difficult, I love it in fact.  I sometimes don't mind a trial-and-error style of gameplay.  What I don't love is when I game has so much going for it through visuals, music, and control--but blows it on something that feels like a cheap way of extending gameplay.

Chakan was admittedly fun in some parts, but not fun enough that I'd revisit again on an annual basis for Halloween gaming.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Midweek Music Box; Theophany "Time's End" Majora's Mask

All things end.  All things draw to a close.  Halloween approaches and the end of this "season" of the year nears it's conclusion.  Time to wrap up the Halloween-themed Midweek Music Box picks with one that I find one of the most terror inducing of all.

For the record, I hated this music when I was a kid.  But in a good way.  You know, it's a love-to-hate thing.  The music on the last notes of the last day freaked me out, it left me completely unsettled, and it made me just want to restart the game's three day cycle simply so I wouldn't have to listen to that doom-filled music.  Soon...soon the rest of the world and I would experience a terrible fate, a final conclusion.

Everything in the game took on an unearthly quality. A sense of unstoppable horror and dread permeates every inch of Clock Town and pretty much wherever you are has an atmosphere of doom.  The people of the world know the end is coming and they cannot escape it.  Sure, you can travel back in time, but those people, in that timeline, for them the dawn brings the sun and the moon...and death.  That tune for those final hours send a chill up my spine to this day.  I like it for the mood it sets, and that it takes me back to a time when as a teenager horror movies couldn't scare me, but a simple tune could.  So when I heard Theophany's "Majora's Mask Remix" online a few year ago, I knew I had found not just a fantastic tribute, but a music mix which dialed up the dread to 11.

So why not give it a listen:  

"Final Hours"

Talk about eerie.  I mean, just picture that pumping out your window come Halloween?  Why not make a mock-up of a Redead to really set the mood a tad further?  Okay, maybe not.  Go with something less scary like a zombie or werewolf.  When it comes time though, I don't know if I would really need much else to set the mood for kids coming up to my home on the 31st.  There are definitely other tunes from Nintendo's library of games or 3rd party game makers who hit the coffin nail on the head.  From Ghouls and Ghosts, to Castlevania to even the Boo House from Super Mario World--Get some game music into that haunting rotation of yours and have a Happy Halloween.

Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Back to the Future

Retro game music that sticks with us doesn't necessarily have to have any musical or enjoyable quality to it for us to really remember listening to it.  And criminy, does the Back to the Future music not have it!  At least, that's what I thought back in the day.  As the only song in the game--barring the Enchantment under the Sea Dance level (which I never reached)--it just keeps looping and looping and looping...

The relentlessness of it was incredible.  I mean you run along the streets of Hill Valley and the song plays:

"The Back to the Future Video Game Music"

Marty hurls chocolate shakes at Biff and his gang and the song plays:

"The Back to the Future Video Game Music"

Marty gets erased from existence and the song plays:

"The Back to the Future Video Game Music"

Marty tries to prevent the end of his existence and possible unraveling of the universe by making a pass at his own mom and, like some odd harbinger of pain, the song plays on:

"The Back to the Future Video Game Music"

Yes, it never stops.  Apparently, it even goes on and plays after you finish the game and the crummy text box ending pops up.  Funny enough, the music didn't bother me so much as the fact the first stage was essentially an overhead shooter where you grab clocks instead of fuel and hurl bowling balls instead of missiles.  I think my stubborn refusal to notice the obviousness of game type was also what lead me to not take notice of the music.  It wasn't until the second time I rented this game--yes, I rented an LJN game twice--that I noticed the music and it really started to get to me.  

"Why couldn't it change,"  I wondered.  "Why can't it be like the music from the move?"  "Can we at least hear a 'Power of Love' riff?"

Little did I know that LJN actually had given us music from the movie.  You see, how was I to know at the time that what I was hearing was a version of Huey Lewis'  "Power of Love" going faster than a Delorean traveling at 88 miles per hour ?  Just listen to this:  

"Power of Love"

Once I found out this tidbit, I was stunned.  Before this revelation, I thought people were making excuses for a retro game out of nostalgia gone wrong.  Between my own less-than fond memories of the game and after the Angry Video Game Nerd had his say about the Back to the Future game; I figured the case was closed.  There was simply no defense for the repetitive music and lack of connection to the movie.  But in reality, LJN actually managed to sneak in the copyrighted song and make the game that much more Back to the Future-y.  I mean, it still kinda shocks me to this day that "Power of Love" was there all along.  I will admit there's an odd twinge of nostalgia that creeps in when I hear the original version, but nothing like what I'd call a desire to run out in the street and tell other gamers to download the "soundtrack" of the game.  Who would've thought LJN could get something right?

Of course I had to make this particular Midweek Music Box in honor of it being Back to the Future Day.  I had thought about just doing another Halloween themed post, but this is Back to the Future we're talking about here.  I mean Great Scott, May the Fourth Be With You happens every year!  I know this might sound a bit heavy, but the future, this October 21st 2015 future, only happens once, ever.  Kinda like LJN having gotten something right.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Super Ghouls and Ghosts

Honestly, I have no excuse.

I never took a blow to the head, never took people up on dares, and never got past level two in the original NES game.  So why would I think that when I rented Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts my experience would be marked by anything other than quick deaths, maddening frustration, and the lingering longing to have rented something else from the video store?  Well, I'm a glutton for punishment and this was a SUPER game you see.  So naturally that meant that I had a SUPER time coming my way and that my beloved Mega Man producing Capcom would have learned their lesson.  No more of those cheap deaths and lingering regrets this time!  Right?  Well, no.  The only SUPER thing was my frustration.  I couldn't believe I had rented the upgraded version of this game.  What was I thinking?  Did I like torturing myself back then?  Well, it's time to relive the frustration and fun, it's Halloween time and this is Super Ghouls N' Ghosts.


You're a knight fighting monsters across ghastly landscapes and horror themed backgrounds again.  So is this game just Ghosts 'N Goblins suped up?  To a degree you could say that, but it's more than than just a few tweaks of a classic game.  Game makers were eager to show off their chops on the "new" Super Nintendo by making use of mode 7, parallax scrolling, and multi-layered backgrounds.  Yes, Arthur has shiner armor, and yes, the wide color palette makes everything that much cooler, but it's the attempt to make use of the systems capabilities that really helps the game to stand the test of time.  Capcom gave us something familiar when it came to the overall look of the sprites and style they were done in, but they also took risks in making certain creatures and settings a bit more grim and ghoulish.  Arthur and his "pals" got an upgrade for sure, and it's great looking one to boot.  Ghouls 'N Ghosts never felt like it had forgotten it's roots merely in favor of looking new.  Instead, it took what we knew from before and gave it an overhaul to bring it into the more "modern" 90's.


"Haunted Graveyard"

Synthesized organ music makes a triumphant return, this time with the richer sounds of the Super Nintendo to help enhance the experience.  Okay, it might not have the full orchestration that modern game could have, but it still feels like I'm listening to some odd pipe organ music.  Much like other entries in the Capcom library at this time, the team at Capcom had the ability to churn out soundtracks that were both memorable and enjoyable.  I meant what I said in my review of the Ghosts 'N Goblins music, I love it when a game with classic monsters takes the time to make the soundtrack feel appropriately matched.  

An added bonus with making the transition to the Super Nintendo is the extra layers of sound that are brought to the table.  You've got synthesized organ, flute, and several other instruments.  And, while I like the soundtrack to the original Ghosts 'N Goblins well enough, there are moments that are a tad tinny for my tastes, so it doesn't really make it on to my iPod.  Super Ghouls 'N Ghosts though is welcome anytime on my video game music playlist, especially around Halloween.


Satan has made off with your maiden, so it's rescuin' time!  Like last time, you're fighting your way through undead legions, classic monsters, and insane obstacles.  Also like last time, you have two hits and you're dead.  First your armor flies off, then another hit and the meat gets ripped from your bones, just like in real life.  Also, you can't throw upward, which feels like a bit of artificial difficulty.  It's funny that this feels a tad on the cheap side because when you think about it, you don't get the luxury of throwing Mario's fireballs upward, and in the NES Castlevanias you could never whip upward--so why does it feel cheap here? Maybe its the difficulty of the game and sheer number of enemies that seem to attack from above.  If they can get above me to try and skeletonize me, I should have the capacity to chuck a knife in their general direction.

Obviously the old saying of "Nintendo Hard" comes to mind when playing this game, but there are moments in my opinion when the game does cross that line into cheap-ville.  I don't mind monsters coming at me from all sides, but sometimes you get a natural obstacle that pops up and kills you, so it feels less like skill was needed, and more like a case of trial and error.  There's a part right in the first level where a massive wave of water hits the screen and next think you know, Arthur finds himself swept out to sea!  There are other parts later in the game where the ground suddenly shifts under your feet and you suddenly find obstacles you've already passed hurtling towards you and murdering your unsuspecting rear-end!  Sometimes this feels so cheap it's hard not to scream.

I will say this though; when you do get past a level it's an immensely satisfying feeling that's hard to beat.  Yeah, you died countless times.  Yeah, you're on your last continue and you've barely reached level 2.  Yeah, there are no checkpoints and death means starting from the beginning of the level.  But it feels worth it when you beat the level boss and are ready to continue the quest to defeat Satan and rescue your gal.


You can't talk about the control in the Ghosts 'N Goblins franchise without mentioning the way the knight jumps.  Once you take that leap, you are committed to that direction.  No take-backs!  Either you make the jump or fall to your death.  Either that or land on an enemy and have the flesh ripped from you body like it can't wait to get away from you. 

Other than that, it feels great to move Arthur around, hurling spears, flaming torches, and of course, the all-important knife.  While certain aspects of the jump mechanic feel cheap, tossing weapons and moving around on screen feels natural and satisfying.  When you duck and dodge enemies and die, you know that it was you who screwed up.  Yes, it's hard as all-flipping get out, but you still know that with a bit of practice you can master the least, can master it well enough to move around with some dexterity.  Winning, now that's another matter entirely.

Final Thoughts

Of course this game still has a high frustration factor, even to this day!  That doesn't go away with time, but wounds can heal over time.  And I would like to say that my emotional scarring has healed up.  No longer do I think that the game is impossible.  No longer do I wish I could return my copy to the store for a better game.  I've learned that it was a better game than most other games on the market back in the day.  Heck!  I'd say that it's better than many triple A games on the market now.  It may not be the best game in the world for unwinding from a long day, but it's still a classic game worth its salt and a replay this Halloween, or any time of year.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Ghosts 'N Goblins

If you like to swear in frustration, Ghosts 'N Goblins was a good place to start.  But other than the ability to make gamers rattle off a litany of swear words worth of the Angry Video Game Nerd, it had the ability to set tone with the few notes afforded to it thanks to the system limitations.  Continuing with Halloween themed reviews, this week I've got another familiar title I'd like to talk about.  Harkening back to a time when cinema was restricted to whatever organ music was on hand to accompany the film, Ghosts 'N Goblins embraces a macabre feeling with every note that's played.  Take for instance the music that plays when you start up the game:

"Game Start"

Can't you just picture some sort of Phantom of the Opera-type creature banging away at an organ as this plays?  Granted the setting Ghost 'N Goblins goes for has more in common with a medieval setting--what with knights and princesses fighting the devil himself--but the game composer went for a classic horror genre feel for the music.  Take a listen to the music from stage one:

"Stage 1 Theme"

Doesn't it make you think of films with Bela Lugosi or Boris Karloff?  If it doesn't, then you need to make time in your game-playing schedule for some classic horror because you're missing out.  While those early films may seem a tad campy to us at first glance, they really do offer an unsettling look into the darker side of reality and unleash a world of possibilities that many don't want to think about for too long.  Sure, Ghosts 'N Goblins on a basic level is just your run-of-the-mill action platformer, however the ideas it presents should strike us as a bit unsettling.  Satan himself wants your bride and will literally unleash hell to get her and keep you from reclaiming her.  Classic horror movie stuff happening here.  You've got a terrible monster with evil intent and only one man stands between him and his fiendish desires.  

One last track I want to direct you to is the boss battle music here:

"Boss Battle"

Again, you've got the feel of some one banging away on a pipe organ (within the limitations of the system) and it makes the already nerve racking battles take on a level of intensity that not only ups the ante of an already difficult task, but helps make it feel that much more like you're playing in a classic horror movie.  I hope it doesn't sound (Ha!  Audio pun!) like I'm stretching the comparison too far here, it just takes takes me back to film class.  While it might not have the creep factor of random violin scratches and heart-like drum beats, it does what it can to give you music that fits the tone of the game.  While the Ghosts 'N Goblins soundtrack doesn't exactly make it into my playlists around Halloween, I do enjoy hearing it in all it's 8-bit glory around this time of year, and you should make time to listen and play it too.

Monday, October 12, 2015

To Blandly Go: Citizens of Earth Review


Hot on the heels of winning an election and securing office of Vice President of the World, the hero of our tale does what would naturally follow:  Crashes at his mom's place for the night because he needs his laundry done like a college student!  Thus your adventure in Citizens of Earth begins as you roll out of bed in search of adventure, excitement, and Vice Presidential stuff--either that or a cup of coffee and your mom because your laundry needs doing.

Developed by Eden Industries and chock full of goofy situations, cornball humor, and a play style reminiscent of Earthbound; Citizens of Earth attempts a unique take on the RPG genre.  You traverse the world at large, alien spaceships, and even your mother's home in a quest to...well, do side quests mostly it would seem.  But perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself.  Does the humorous dialogue, colorful characters, and SNES style RPG action make the game a success?  Comparisons to Earthbound will abound, so let's get started.


No denying that the menus and various battle and item interfaces work well.  Selecting actions and things meant to help defeat enemies or restore health and power works well enough...and that's all there really is to be said here.  It does its job and nothing more.  Which depending on how deep of an experience in an RPG you are looking for could either be seen as good or bad.  For me, it just added to the blandness--but we'll get more into that shortly.  Not that I expect my sub-menus to do backflips or anything, just I like little touches here and there graphically.  But maybe they were just trying to make it feel more like Earthbound and other RPG games of the 16 bit era.

Graphics and Style

 Character sprites are bright and colorful, backgrounds suit their individual settings well, and the overall art style seems like a hybrid fusion of Diner Dash and Earthbound.  Not that it's bad, just that despite having an eclectic cast of heroes and enemies, it ends up feeling a little too cookie-cutter.  I hate to sound like I'm knocking the design department, after all, people were paid good money to come up designs for everything from the goofy, dull-witted VP of the World to the "Anchor Birds."  However, it feels like they played it too safe.  While I liked the concept of a world populated with zany characters and bizarre creatures, it never felt that unique.  Part of the appeal of a game like Earthbound (yeah, another Earthbound comparison, it was "bound" to happen) lies in how it takes risks with the characters it brings in.  Stray cats, hippies, and horrific aliens in the same game?  Now that's some interesting variety!  Cutesy references to Starbucks, Bob Ross, and several other pop-culture figures?  Eh, okay I guess.  Just kinda dates the game in a bland way.  Again, not to insult the makers of Citizens, but there just weren't enough risks taken in my opinion.

Music and Sound

At this point you may have noticed I've used the word "bland" several times now in this review.  Well, prepare to "hear" it again as I talk about music and sound.

"Title Theme"

Take a good listen, because that's about as good as it gets for the game when it comes to music.  Now, in all fairness you can switch to "retro" mode as the game calls it, and you get more of a classic 16-bit game sound.  While this music swap is appreciated, and personally I preferred the retro renditions, it doesn't enhance the quality of the overall tunes.  They are forgettable whatever coat of paint you put on them.

The game has decent sound design, with realistic effects and humorous, fully voiced sections of dialogue.  Unfortunately though, the game makes use of the voice acting far too often.  It suffers from that now classic problem where the same dialogue gets used over and over again.  You can expect to hear, "Remember to protect me" and "You're grounded" at least a hundred times before the first "quest" is finished.  Also, each time you run into a new character to join your party, they have their own unique, and again fully voiced, dialogue encounter.  Although a part of me appreciates the use of voice actors and I give full kudos to the cast--it just gets a little too old too quickly.  I don't think it's the actors fault really, just the dialogue tries too hard to be funny and seems to hit the same couple of comedic notes over and over again.  I just wanted to skip past the dialogue after the first half hour of playing, but always managed to foul it up.  There were sections where I was strongly reminded of the owl from Ocarina of Time.  You know, where you try to scroll through what he's saying only to accidentally have him repeat it several times before you finally manage to restrain yourself enough from hitting the A button to not accidentally send him jabbering again?  Imagine that, only if the owl was voiced by a used car salesman.


Citizens of Earth revolves around the gag that you play as the recently elected Vice President of the World, and hilarity ensues.  Or at least it tries to ensue.  The game attempts at several points to sell you on the gag that the characters are in a not-so-typical RPG.  So how does it "shake things up?"  Well, as VP of the world, your day starts pretty much as every typical RPG would.  You have a basic mission to complete while you get to know the controls and character motivation.  A helpful character lets you know just how each sub-menu works, and you battle enemies to level up.  And dialogue mainly centers around ushering you from scene to scene to ensure you've gotten the idea on how to play the game.  What sets Citizens of Earth apart are it's various visual and dialogue gags.  Some attempts at humor vary from a light chuckle to eye-rolling desire to skip the dialogue, which I covered before.  I admit though I can't help but give a small smile as you command your friends, brother, and even your own mother to fight your battles for you.  There's admittedly some humor in the notion that the characters who join your quest all fight on your behalf while you, the spineless worm of a politician that you are, sit back and "delegate" at a level most middle managers could only dream of.

However, the gag wears thin fairly quickly, and when it does, you're left with basic run-of-the-mill RPG.  You grind, you level, you fight harder enemies so you can grind on those enemies and level and so on and so forth.  But there's a big problem to this grinding, aside from it being an obvious way to extend gameplay.  It feels like all build up and no pay off.  Every mission you go on basically is a set up so you can have another person added to your party.  There's some thin plot-thread about an alien invasion going on in the background, but the real meat and potatoes gameplay relies on fetch quest after fetch quest to get you more people as possible party-mates.  I just ended up losing interest in the game after a couple of hours because it felt like I wasn't getting anywhere in the story, and knowing there was so little to the story just got me more frustrated.

Final Thoughts

I see how the game makers were trying to bring something both new and familiar to the RPG genre.  They wanted to give us a familiar feeling and welcomed us to a world ripe with a souped up 16-bit like experience.  Too bad that it just ends up giving us familiar territory.  I just got bored with it so quickly.  The dialogue got obnoxiously dumb rather than funnier, the novelty of gathering an eclectic cast of characters wore off before I had finished the first "Act" if you can call it that.  And what was only the first act lasted for far too long with too little pay off.  I wasn't engaged, and I should have been.  How often do you get to play a game where you can recruit a Bob Ross clone and a Starbucks employee to help you battle monsters?  It sounds hilarious and different...but it just doesn't deliver.  It's on sale currently in the eShop and for a discounted price, it might be worth it to check out at least to see if it's your proverbial cup of tea.  It doesn't have any fatal flaws, it just is sort of there.

One last thing that I want to mention:  The game froze and I assumed it was just me having somehow caused it.  But the second time it happened I got a little suspicious.  I looked up "freezing issues" with Citizens of Earth and discovered that there were freezing issues on the Wii U that were mentioned as far back as February.  February.  Here we are in October and the game still does this?  Add that to the list of reasons I'm already so-so on the game and I'm just not sure if I'll ever turn the game on again.  It's a real shame the game is the way it is play-wise.  I can tell that the people who made it are really trying, you can sense the effort behind it in a way.  However, there are just too many flaws within the game for my tastes and a game that can't run properly and crashes twice on me in the middle of a my dad likes to say, it need a rewrite.

Graphics/Visual Style:  7/10
Music and Sound:  5/10
Control and Gameplay: 7/10

Overall Score: 6/10

Friday, October 9, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Super Castlevania IV

Halloween lurks around the corner and it makes me think of the days of yore. Ah the days of yore!  And by "yore" I mean Super Nintendo, where every new entry into a familiar franchise had the "Super" label slapped on it.  To this day I wonder why Nintendo games tended to have a reminder about what system you're playing on right there in the title.  I think this is a staple of Nintendo systems with the only exception being the Gamecube.  We have Super Mario Wii U, Zombie U, Wii Fit U--it's like a weird compulsion.  Like Nintendo is saying, "Don't confuse us with that PS4 garbage!  You're playing on Wii U my friend!"

Facts are facts though:  When Super Castlevania IV came out for the Super Nintendo back in the day and I rented it, I knew this was no ordinary Castlevania, it was Super Castlevania.  Naturally this meant better sound, music, graphics, and gameplay than a mere 8 bit system could ever muster.  I was always drawn to the Castlevania series, despite having more difficulty with them then most other games.  There was something about the challenge that I absolutely loved though and the enemies you battled were second to none in the design department.  I may not have managed to beat this when I rented it, but I absolutely loved everything about it from the parallax scroll to the large character sprites and unique Super Nintendo music.  Did that love hold up over the years?


Let's face it, hearing souped up versions of old tracks can tickle your fancy.  More than that though, the original tracks in Super Castlevania IV, especially that title/intro music, have a spooky feel that's helped by the limitations of the Super Nintendo.  It could just be my own feelings on the matter, but I find a certain appeal in the other-worldly quality you get from the digital music in this game.  You know what you're hearing doesn't quite fit in with what you would consider a normal instrument, and it immediately puts you on edge--but in a good, haunting way.  I would almost say that the tone of the game would suffer if the music was capable of full orchestration.  Yeah, I know, bold claim, it could just be the nostalgia talking and my own love for the original sound.  For what it's worth though, I would take Castlevania IV's intro music over many recent AAA games' attempt at the creep factor.  Something about the midi-sounding pipe organ gives me chills in a way that violin screeches never could.


With tight controls, that wonderful whipping action, and the inability to change direction once you jump; Super Castlevania IV has all the hallmarks you come to expect from both Castlevania and Konami--before they went bat-poop crazy and decided that gambling machines and mobile was where their destiny lied.  But I digress....

In any case, the control you want and expect from Castlevania shows up, along with a new feature, that of the ability to whip in any direction.  Of course, the Belmonts' crippling weakness of flying back when poked by the smallest of rats also makes an appearance, but that doesn't detract from the great control you have over the hero.  And as for gameplay?  Castlevania still has it.  There are few games that have made the leap from system to system and generation to generation of console quite as well as the Castlevania series.  The basic goal has remained the same:  battle your way through hordes of Dracula's minions in your quest and ultimate goal of vanquishing the Count himself.  Sure the formula remains the same, but being the miserable pile of secrets that I am, I still love it.


As you would expect, everything from graphics to character design gets an upgrade from the Nintendo days.  However, I want to mention two things in particular about Super Castlevania IV that I appreciated only in passing back in the day and that catches my eye even more as an adult.  As I said before, the game gets an expected upgrade.  The fishmen look slimier, the rocks more jagged, wolves seem furrier and more menacing, and a whole host of other characters and platform sprites get the Super Nintendo treatment.  In particular now I notice minor background animations and just how much depth it truly adds to the game.  From dripping water to flickering torches to bats flying out of caves in the background--the programmers at Konami in their heyday really knew how a few minor touches could sell the atmosphere of a game.  

Final Thoughts

It's great revisiting this game for Halloween--or any time of year for that matter--the game remains one of the most solid titles around and reminds you of what Konami used to be.  I tried to rent this game and the other Castlevania games whenever Halloween rolled around.  When I wanted to get in the spirit of the season, no pun intended, I would go for those games that most reminded me of classic horror movies and fiction novels.  So what better place to go for a Halloween treat than good ol' Count Dracula?  I wasn't into the super scary stuff back then and I'm not now.  If I really wanted to be spooked I would play Dungeon Master on the Amiga--but that story is for another day. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Midweek Music Box: Castlevania 64

October means Halloween and Halloween means ghosts, goblins, imps, werewolves, dark and sinister creatures of the night...and of course, Count Dracula himself.  In honor of the upcoming holiday Midweek Music Boxes and Friday Night Rentals will be dedicated to those games that most remind us of Halloween.  Kicking things off with Midweek Music Box, Castlevania, the Nintendo 64 version and several of its musical backgrounds.  

While not my favorite entry into the Castlevania franchise, I will say this:  Several of the tracks in the game create a haunting and foreboding atmosphere that help sell the tone of the game better than the polygon graphic's now painfully dated attempt at spookiness.  Let me name a few tracks in particular that help capture the "spirit" of the game and of Halloween, of course.


Castlevania's Introduction Music helps not only sell the Castlevania feel, but gives you some great audio cues as to the ton of the story.  Big bombastic drums and dramatic woodwinds crescendo to...a single violin playing a melancholy tune joined by what sounds like a harpsichord and ominous drum beats finishing with a bittersweet piano playing.  Yes the game promises adventure and excitement, but the music lets you know underneath the eternal quest to vanquish Dracula lies the tale of real people caught up in the foul spirit's dark designs.

"Watch Tower"

Odd chimes, sometimes discordant tingling noises and haunting use of synthesizer tones help afford the Watch Tower track a tone that leaves the listener with a feeling that things are slightly off-kilter in the world.  I love that it's not strictly musical in the sense that you would "jam" to it or necessarily have it playing in the background on an average day.  It evokes a sense of unease that's great not only for Castlevania but for the month of October as well.

"Annex Silent Madness"

Unearthly tones, a repeating use of string instruments, and a few well placed piano strokes help set the stage--so to speak--for your meanderings around this portion of the game.  The faint, occasional inclusion of what might be a harpsichord helps to also add a level of dread to this track.  Personally, I think a lift of this track would provide great ambient music for the front of any home come Halloween night.

There are certainly other tracks within the Castlevania (64) soundtrack that would suit a home during this time of year, but I wanted to highlight the ones I felt in particular should get a play in your home this Halloween.  The game gets flak these days for its dated graphics, occasionally clunky gameplay thanks to poor camera use, and-of course-the infamous long walk with sensitive explosives.  Despite these flaws, the game still had moments of brilliance within its soundtrack.  To this day I still remember the image of the boy in Victorian dress playing the violin as the camera circles him.  The graphics looked chunky then, but the music was fantastic, and it still is.  I recommend hunting down more tracks from Castlevania 64 this Halloween.  You might find a gem you forgot was there. 

Saturday, October 3, 2015

Friday Night Rentals: Annoyed by Cybernoid

Revisiting a game like Cybernoid makes me realize why James Rolfe AKA the Angry Video Game Nerd exists.  I'm fairly certain I got this game two separate weekends from the local video store when I was a kid and still have no clue why.  It was a frustrating experience the first time, and it was a frustrating experience the second time.  One of the game magazines I read back in the day said Cybernoid was an action shoot'em up.  Lies.

I had done well enough at the arcades when playing Galaga to think I stood a fair shot at playing well and maybe even beating the game over the course of a weekend.   Was this like Galaga or even Gorf?  No, it was a droning piece of junk back then and I had vastly over-estimated my ability to beat this game.  I was done trying to play it before the end of Friday night.  What does navigating space mazes and dodging random missile attack have to do with space shooters?  Nothing, that's what.  The only similarity is that in both of them you pilot a little ship around the screen.  So why did I rent it at all?

Well, back then I was under the impression that the really cool, space fighter-type levels were later on if only I could get to them.  The cover looked awesome back then and it still does today.  I never got past the second level back when I was a kid, even when I set it to easy.  So when I grabbed this game for two bucks at a local swap meet, I thought perhaps finally I wouldn't get so frustrated.  Perhaps now, as an adult I would ease through obstacles that caught me as a kid.

Or perhaps not.  


The NES version of Cybernoid got the short end of the stick when it came to music and sound design apparently.  From what I can tell via the videos I've found online the C64 and Amiga got a nice little soundtrack, but this port got a lovely droning, continuous wubbing that serves as a substitute.  And in terms of sound effects?  I swear there's only about five or six of them and they all remind me of things I've heard in Atari 2600 games.  Granted, you can't do as much on a game system as you can with a PC, but it's like Acclaim's team didn't even try.  At a time when games designers were pumping out memorable tunes that have stuck with us for years and melodies that made simple 8-bit games feel cinematic; Cybernoid provided forgettable bleeps and bloops and droning hums that weren't satisfying then and hold zero nostalgia value for me now.  This is made all the more sad because the intro screen had some pretty good music, but sadly we only got a taste of what might have been.

"Main Screen"


Cybernoid, the fighting machine?  I wouldn't trust this ship to fight a dandelion much less space pirates.  You get to pilot a spaceship that can't stay afloat, has limited ammo, and has the structural integrity of a bubble!  You pilot your horribly constructed deathship through a series of obstacles in an effort to stop space pirates who have stolen cargo or some such nonsense.  It's okay though, because the space pirates aren't doing a full out assault to stop you, but the traps will infuriate you as you die constantly.  Yes, there are plenty of classic games where one touch equals death, but in a funny sort of way the ones that were programmed well never made you feel like you were so fragile that a well place sneeze could end your life.  I meant what I said, driving the spaceship feels like you're piloting a bubble.  The control works well enough, and piloting your ship and using the limited weapons doesn't feel like a chore.  But what does feel like a chore is that you constantly have to keep a steady amount of pressure pushing the d-pad up as your ship sinks to the ground slowly, like it were made of a soap bubble trying to float to the ground.  The hit box on your Cybernoid ship feels huge and as a result of the one-two punch of having an ever sinking ship that pops--I mean explodes--at the drop of a hat and screens that are filled with cheap traps and enemies, you could easily cycle through over half your lives before you even realize what's going one.  This is only made worse by the quick respawn feature of the game. 


The graphics look trite for an NES game.  Again, in an era of video gaming where cinematic sequences and unique styles of character design were coming into their own; there are are sections of Cybernoid that feel like they came from the infamous "Action 52" cartridge.  Sure, repeating sprites and walls happen, but that doesn't mean they need to feel so bland when doing so that you swear you had already beaten the screen you advance to.  Each new screen should feel like a fresh challenge.  Instead, you feel like your hard work and efforts are rewarded with the knowledge that you deeply regret having started to play because now you feel the compulsive need to finish the game though you've grown to hate it so. 

I will say this for Cybernoid though, the little ship reminds me of the vehicle you pilot in Ballblazer, a far superior game I remember playing on my parents Atari 800.

Final Thoughts

I straight up laughed when I popped this game into my NES and kept dying.  I had set the game to the easiest setting, forgoing the aptly titled "Lethal" mode, yet I found myself almost out of lives before getting past the second screen.  It was even funnier when a missile randomly popped out of a screw-shaped sprite and blew away my last life only two screens later.  I was having a blast and not because the game was any fun but it felt so over-the-top cheap.  When I bumped it up to the lethal setting I laughed even harder.  Random, nonsensical firing patterns from some enemies, varying speeds from others--it was gloriously ridiculous.   

One last thing I want to mention is this:  I've seen via youtube videos that you can beat the whole game in ten minutes or less, and that seems so weird to me.  When I rented games, of course the objective was to beat them by weekend's end if possible.  But had I the skill to beat this game back then I can't imagine how frustrated I would have felt getting stuck with something I had beaten before the sun set.  It was $40-$50 back in the day for video games, and I can't imagine having laid that much down for Cybernoid back then and boggles my mind to think some one could have purchased this and beaten it in the same day.  I'm thankful I only spent a couple bucks to pick this up to add to the collection because aside from rounding out the collection, I can't think of a good reason to put this back into my system again.

Unless maybe I need a good laugh.