Famicom Mini-Review Showcase: Takeru/Sur-De-Wave Pt. 1

December 1, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Takeru was a small developer that only ever put two games out for the Famicom under the Sur-De-Wave label. It was founded by a small group of industry veterans who largely felt stifled by their previous employers. They went bankrupt not terribly long after formation, mostly due to their overly ambitious adventure game, Nostalgia 1907, not meeting expectations.

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Cocoron
(May, 1991)

Directed by Akira Kitamura – the director of the first two Rockman (Mega Man) games and perhaps the man most deserving of the title of father of that series – Cocoron is a game that tends to take after Rockman while trying to provide its own unique twists on the formula. Despite the fact that Kitamura was almost undoubtedly significantly more responsible for Rockman’s beginnings than Keiji Inafune, the artist who popularly came to be incorrectly known as the father of Rockman, his hand in the series was little known for many years due to the fact that early games in the Rockman series’ credits used nicknames rather than actual names. This led many to wonder exactly who “A K,” the man credited as planner in Rockman’s credits roll, actually was.

Leaving Capcom during the development of Rockman 3 due to creative differences (and leaving that game in turmoil – despite some common love for it, it feels unfinished, poorly thought out, and rushed in many aspects), he went on to form Takeru with a few other veterans, including the director of Strider. This leads one to believe that Cocoron was more the game that he wanted to make after Rockman 2, given that it happens to contain many similar mechanics and the basic jump-and-shoot type of play, but a vastly different setting.

In Cocoron, you take the role of an unseen child who has been visited in their sleep while dreaming by a mysterious tapir with a parosol and polka-dot pajamas. This tapir, fittingly calling himself Tapir, asks you to help him find a missing princess in the dream world. To do so, you must first create an ally to act as your avatar in the world, and this quickly puts you into a surprisingly robust character creation menu.

You’re able to choose your character’s head, body, and weapon from a wide array of choices with no restriction on what combinations you can come up with. These pieces consist of many fantasy and sci-fi bits evocative of popular entertainment for boys at the time, such as dragons, robots (one resembles a Gundam), cyborgs (including ones resembling both Astro Boy and Cyborg 009 – popular inspirations for Rockman), and silly things like jack-o-lanterns or smiley faces. Put a skull on a dune buggy, make a bird-headed submarine, criss-cross a tough looking fighter with a cloud – there’s a lot of fun to be had, here.

Unfortunately, one of Cocoron’s immediate failings is in tying stats to these pieces. Each piece has a certain weight and amount of hit points to it. The hitpoints unsurprisingly act as your in-game health bar, but weight is a little weird – higher weight means slower movement and shorter jumps. However, the stages in the game have their platforming balanced around the idea that you should be able to complete them with minimum jump height and slow movement. In addition to that, many enemies and bosses deal a ridiculous amount of damage, and both of these elements work together in skewing the usefulness heavily in favor of pieces with higher HP. Sure, there are a couple of points where if you could jump higher, you might get a recovery item or 1up, but this does almost nothing to mitigate the game’s extreme jump in difficulty for a character with minimum weight versus its opposite. You’d think a character with high weight would be irritatingly slow, but they’re instead roughly as mobile as Rockman.

Some body types also have unique behaviors, such as being unaffected by inertia on slopes, floating atop water, or short bouts of flight. This game is still a platformer like Rockman, however, and flight becomes far and away the most useful ability when considering it allows you to ignore many of the game’s challenging elements by simply hovering right over them. There are two tiers of body types that allow for flight, and the obvious choice is the heavier tier that has greater HP, unless you’re for some reason playing for fast completion time.

Shoehorning your freedom even further, the selection of weapons also has different weight and damage values in addition to different behaviors. Would it surprise you to learn that one option far and away outclasses the others? How about that it’s the heaviest option, again? The shuriken not only deals 50% more damage than the next most powerful weapons (and double most other weapons), but also travels quickly and in a straight arc, making it ideal for rapid-fire and quick kills on enemies and bosses.

Upon creating your character, you’re released into a stage select screen with a small house in the center. This screen allows you – much like Rockman – to select where you’d like to start your adventure. Although this might seem completely similar, at first, one of the ways in which Cocoron comes alive is in having a unique stage for every conceivable combination of points to travel between. For example, traveling from the woods to the castle will be a different stage than traveling from the woods to the pirate ship (though traveling back from the pirate ship to the woods would simply be the same level played in reverse). Although some say that levels simply have “entrance” and “exit” portions that remain the same, but combine in ways to create the illusion of additional stages, this is actually false – try the specific two combinations I just mentioned to observe the woods having two different “exit” portions for both combinations.

Many of these stages do recycle copious visual elements, but some may feature unique portions and will always have different enemy placement. While you might see repeat enemies, like the skunks or armadillos that litter the game, they may now have unique behaviors. Like with the character creation, however, the game tends to once again overextend its boundaries. The stages are relatively short, and the enemy placement and level geography is largely uninteresting. If you’re familiar with Rockman’s incredibly tight design, this slips up almost tremendously in comparison and will not provide you with a similar quality experience in its mechanical design. Enemy health and damage values are often nonsense, and every enemy drops an egg with a random item in it upon death – usually small amounts of health – as if to act as some sort of very poor substitute for actual balancing.

Beating a level rewards you with a bit of story advancement and prompts you to create another character. While this seems like it would possibly become a way to tie the game together and have a cast with various useful abilities, you can only play as the one you choose from the beginning of a stage all throughout it. In addition to that, enemies drop weapon upgrades that require a total of 25 of to fully level your weapon, which heavily encourages you to stick with your first character and never change, as those upgrades only apply to the character who picks them up. Balance even further untethers itself by weapon damage values never changing, just the size or number of projectiles on-screen. Most weapons fire in multiple arcs as they level up, which hilariously reduces their effectiveness, as this makes it harder to rapid-fire them due to a limit on the number of projectiles that can be on screen at once.

Once you’ve cleared all available stages, every single character you’ve created but your first is then abruptly stolen from you as you’re forced to go on a multi-tier stage to the final boss. Characters are returned to you one by one as you advance, but die just once on this stage and you start it from the first tier with all the characters stolen again. Although the stage is relatively low difficulty with a flying character, it can be immensely frustrating without. You’d expect design to tighten up near the end of the game, but it stays roughly as bland as it did all throughout the rest of it.

What Cocoron cannot save in its mechanics, it tries desperately to make up for with brightly vivid, colorful visual work and a mesmerizingly delightful soundtrack (which you may have heard before if you’ve ever played the flash game Eversion, which steals much of Cocoron’s music). The visual work in the game is great and the music is genuinely superb, both featuring highly distinctive flavors that both help to set this game apart as a real stand-out in the library and give incredible life to the dream world the game takes place in.

Beyond the quality of worksmanship put into the visuals, the subject matter helps to make the game feel more appropriately part of a dreamscape. Seas made of milk and cheese, skunks on UFO’s, little homes for penguins built into icy terrain, math equations floating in empty space – all appropriately silly or bizarre enough to feel as if they would pleasantly work into a dream. The levels changing based on your paths and character creation options also help to further make this game feel as though it’s but a dream, itself. Despite the game’s poor balancing not always accentuating it particularly well, the changing heroes and landscapes make the entire experience surprisingly fluid and fun to come back to.

While many famous directors often find themselves unable to escape the sheer weight of their most popular work – and Cocoron’s relatively minimal success did little to escape Kitamura from this in the public’s eye – the effort put on here to make this not just another Mega Man game is both endearing and admirable. He does not simply take his masterwork and play it out again with slightly different trappings, as Inafune found himself helplessly doing into infinity, he dares to do something new and exciting with his work, even if it didn’t turn out quite as hotly as you might have wanted it to.

I do ultimately find Cocoron a bit hard to recommend to the action game enthusiast turning over stones and hoping to find another Rockman 2 somehow lying under one, but it’s an easy recommendation to those with an enthusiasm for the Famicom who don’t mind trying something that’s a bit offbeat and are willing to suffer a potential disappointment in favor of the excitement of its unique flavor. The bittersweetness is undeniable, but there’s something that has brought me back to completing it over a dozen times, the game repeatedly finding itself lovingly nestled in my Famicom for another go, time and again.

Famicom Mini-Review Showcase – Konami

November 5, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten

Widely considered one of the best 3rd parties to ever lay their hands on Famicom development, Konami was a once well-loved company known for far more than disappointing their modern fans by neglecting their employees and letting their long-standing franchises wither and die. Despite a slow start, they would come to be known for involvement either developing or publishing 96 Famicom or Famicom Disk System games, and most of their titles were largely known for a high quality mark.

The Famicom was released in 1983, and didn’t receive any third-party support until 1984, which was in relatively limited quantities. The first third-party game for the Famicom was Nuts & Milk, by the now defunct and once illustrious Hudson Soft (who were, funnily enough, purchased by Konami and then gutted and reduced to essentially nothing in fairly recent years). Konami’s first bunch of Famicom games released in 1985, and were largely unremarkable or forgettable titles, several of which, such as Yie-Ar Kung Fu (which helped served as the basis for the modern fighting game), were based on their arcade games.

By the time that late 86 had rolled around, however, Konami’s third-party support for the Famicom and its add-on, the Famicom Disk System, had reached the point where they could near-inarguably be considered the very best third-party that Nintendo had creating work for their hardware. Hugely popular and widely influential titles like Gradius and Castlevania were both released in 86, and technical accomplishments like the first Ganbare Goemon game – the first Famicom game of any kind to use the new 2-megabit cartridge – also released this year. Konami would hold tight their incredible superiority of third-party development for the console until roughly 91, when they shifted focus from the Famicom to its successor, the Super Famicom.

Below are reviews of some of Konami’s slightly less known (at least in the states) titles that were never released overseas spanning from late 86 to mid-87, and some light perspective on the climate at the time.

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King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch (King Kong 2: Season of the Megaton Punch)
(December 18, 1986)

In 1986, there released a sequel film to the 1976 remake of the original classic film, King Kong, titled King Kong Lives. A worldwide flop in the box office, it only managed to recoup slightly over a quarter of its 18 million dollar budget (nearly a 40 million dollar budget when inflation adjusted for today) and was widely panned by critics. Released in Japan under the title “King Kong 2,” Konami somehow acquired the license to create a game to be released alongside the film where you play as the titular, monstrous ape (meaning, yes, despite the 2 in the title, this isn’t a sequel game).

Likely heavily influenced by the recent and outrageously popular game by Nintendo, The Legend of Zelda (which released in February of 86 and saw many copycats), King Kong 2: Ikari no Megaton Punch more or less completely forsook trying to resemble the film but in the loosest sense and instead opted to be much more bizarre. Featuring top-down perspective, the King Kong 2 had many action RPG mechanics like upgrading your stock of projectiles, permanently increasing your life, wandering around and discovering hidden entrances, etc. While you could jump and there were a few bits of platforming, which differed it from Zelda almost immediately, you were mostly limited to a short-ranged punch and very similar combat to Nintendo’s popular ARPG.

What set it apart from Zelda most significantly was a setting that would wildly fluctuate between modern and futuristic sci-fi. Strange and mutant creatures, gundam-esque robots, tanks, gigantic, mechanical fortresses – it begs the question if this started life as something else and then changed direction when Konami needed to make a game for the hot license that they’d acquired. Kong rampages through 9 levels, constantly destroying the environment and searching for hidden warps and secrets to ultimately fight that level’s boss and collect its key.

Your goal – which is roughly the same as Kong in the movie – is to rescue Lady Kong from captivity (and then procreate with her to continue your linage of gigantic apes) using each boss’s key. With every key obtained, you’re flashed a delightfully cartoonish picture of Kong and a captive Lady Kong to be reminded of your end goal. Unfortunately, despite the interesting setting, high profile developer, and seemingly decent mechanics, King Kong 2 is ultimately deeply directionless and only remarkable in having relatively high production value in its audio/visual when compared to other titles of its time period.

Finding where you need to go is an incredible chore, and the maps tend to very poorly indicate where you can travel. This ends up with you punching every one of the hundreds of destructible blocks found in the game, and also pushing against every screen boundary to see if there’s another transition. Warps are constantly sending you from one world to another while sometimes skipping the next one you’d want to visit, as well. Another frustrating feature is a lack of continues, which can only be mitigated by inputting a code upon death. Given the length and sheer obtuseness of the game, needing to discover a code to continue is nearly unforgivable, especially considering that the game which it is imitating, The Legend of Zelda, famously featured actual saving.

Ultimately, it’s a hard game to recommend outside of its novelty, but Konami was apparently endeared enough at their work, here, to later feature King Kong as a playable character in Konami Wai Wai World – which featured many popular Konami characters working together. Kong was not alone in being the only movie character, as you could also play as Mikey from Konami’s The Goonies and The Goonies II.

[Progress disclosure: beaten on hardware with usage of a guide and the continue code]

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Majou Densetsu II: Galious no Meikyu (Demon Castle Legend: The Maze of Galious)
(August 11th, 1987)

Commonly known as just Galious, Majou Densetsu II: Galious no Meikyo was a port of a game that Konami had previously released for the MSX – a series of gaming computers that competed with the Famicom and were relatively popular in Japan and European territories. The sequel to Majou Densetsu, an MSX exclusive title and vertically scrolling shooter game with light RPG elements (not entirely dissimilar to Square’s early Famicom game, King’s Knight), Galious was an entirely different genre of game much more similar to later entries in Falcom’s popular Dragon Slayer series (whose first game was also published by Square).

Although it was a port, the Famicom version of Galious was largely reconstructed to feature side-scrolling rather than just inter-connected single screens, as well as other changes to better fit the Famicom and essentially update the game (depending on who you ask, for better or worse). Players take the role of two different knights, Popolon (the hero from the first game) and Aphrodite (the damsel-in-distress from the first game), both lovers who are set out to rescue their as-of-yet unborn son from the eponymous villain, the priest known as Galious. The opening narration, which is entirely in English, claims he has the power to steal future babies from Heaven, which is something I don’t think I need to point out the sheer ridiculousness of.

While both knights are consistently available to player and feature slightly different abilities, they may only control one at a time as they search their way through Galious’ maze to discover its multiple dungeons, items necessary to complete them, and bosses residing within. Those with an American perspective might refer to the game as a “Metroidvania” – a game that mixes action elements with RPG elements in an open, platforming world. While that’s not technically inaccurate, this genre predates both games that the term Metroidvania is a portmanteau of, and it much more resembles the true progenitors of this type of game than either Metroid or the later Castlevania titles.

However, I do not make such a correction to flatter the game. Galious is a deeply obtuse, hellishly maze-like game in which progress is difficult without either extremely elaborate trial-and-error and mapping or an extensive guide. What to do is often unclear to the player, and death is easily happened upon. When one player dies, you are forced to backtrack to a specific point to revive them and pay heftily, and when both die, you receive a game over and must then be forced to enter the last password you received from the single point in the game that offers it. Items necessary to progress are often cruelly hidden, and the map is unintuitive enough to force extreme measures to cover every inch of it.

Even with a guide there to get you through the game in the shortest amount of time possible, Galious also features shops that require incredible money to be collected for the items within and combat that is non-trivially difficult. The only way to regain health in the game is to repeatedly kill enemies and fill an experience bar whose soul purpose is to restore your health, and the only way to get money (aside from a few hidden passages in unmarked walls you can walk through) is to repeatedly kill enemies, as well. This results in adding another layer of absurd tedium upon a game already deeply disrespectful to the player’s time.

The easiest game to compare it to that was released stateside is Legacy of the Wizard – otherwise known as Dragon Slayer IV, which was also originally an MSX game. While both games are comparably obtuse, Legacy of the Wizard at least features a highly charming aesthetic and strangely interesting world design with excellent music by Yuzo Koshiro. Galious, on the other hand, despite being relatively polished in terms of smooth play and technical detail (typical of nearly all in-house Konami releases), features incredibly repetitive visuals which makes the dungeons and world itself feel deeply indistinct and ugly.

This genre of maze games was highly popular in Japan and arguably found itself beginning with either the first Dragon Slayer or slightly more likely the notoriously obtuse Tower of Druaga, and we rarely saw releases from this genre over here for relatively good reason. Unless you deeply enjoy getting lost and working your way through painfully thoughtless mazes there to extend the game’s playtime into double or triple digit hours, I would highly recommend staying away from this. As a piece of Japanese game history, it is mildly interesting, but as an actual experience to engage with, I can’t be particularly positive.

[Progress disclosure: beaten on hardware with usage of a guide]

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Getsu Fuuma Den (The Legend of Getsu Fuuma)
(July 7, 1987)

Released roughly half a year after Nintendo’s Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, Getsu Fuuma Den is as much in the vein of that game as King Kong 2 was in the vein of the original Zelda. Featuring a side-scrolling perspective for its action stages and overhead perspective for its world map, you similarly traveled across an open world in search of various items to reach a final confrontation and end the game. The story’s setting takes place in such a far future that things have essentially wrapped back around into similarity to feudal Japan. You are Fuuma, the last of the three Getsu brothers, rulers of the modern world who banded together to slay the evil Ryuukotsuki, a powerful demon recently escaped from hell. You and your brothers ultimately failed, and you were left the only survivor.

The three blades wielded by each brother, the legendary Wave blades, were stolen and then hidden away, each protected by a significant demon. Your objective is to get each blade back, and then ultimately defeat Ryuukotsuki and bring peace back to the world. You achieve this by exploring the overworld and visiting the three islands neighboring the main one you start on, each of which contain one demon and one of the swords. The overworld is split into multiple paths which feature multiple gates – entering a gate then begins an side-scrolling action sequence, where Fuuma must defeat multiple enemies on his way through.

The combat controls are very slightly finnicky in that upon jumping, you’re committed to facing your initial direction for the remainder of the jump. In addition to that, turning around when on the ground is not instantaneous, which makes hitting certain enemies (and the first boss, who swoops back and forth across the screen) surprisingly tricky. Hitboxing also feels slightly off, and your default method of attack – your sword – is especially weird in its long, wide arc. When people describe Castlevania’s controls as imprecise, I always scoff at the absurdity of a game that honed receiving a criticism so incongruent with its highly precise (albeit strict) controls… What they describe instead seems much more like how this game plays.

While Getsu Fuuma Den admittedly rarely demands much precision with its controls, there are a few instances where it does and this scheme can really get in the way of enjoying the game. Though I’d still consider it well above par for an action game of this time period, it’s a noteworthy enough flaw that I feel it’s worth mentioning. Combat, although enjoyable, is often repetitive, and stage segments try to make up for lack of design in sheer number and enemy variety. This repetitiveness also works its way into other elements of the game, as money is often required to buy necessary or near-necessary items for progress. Money, of course, is earned by killing enemies ad nauseum. Since the game also operates on a lives system, a game over will halve your gold, thus making the act of collecting again pure time-wasting. Fuuma’s heads up display also features a strength bar, which fills over the course of the killing hundreds of enemies and raises his base attack level to better handle more difficult enemies.

Upon reaching the location of the boss on one of the islands with the item necessary to enter their lair, you’re then treated to a first-person dungeon. While the combat mechanics for these areas are surprisingly interesting and well-executed, they’re needlessly obtuse in their layouts and highly tedious to traverse. The late eighties featured a startlingly common amount of games with first-person mazes, and Konami themselves were no stranger to this with their popular Ganbare Goemon title featuring one per stage, and a few of their other games also featuring them. After finishing the first-person dungeon, you’re returned to a brief side-scrolling segment that ends in a (usually difficult) boss fight.

The game’s basic appeal is in slowly powering Fuuma up and finding new items for him, and then fighting an area’s boss when powered up enough to feel you can finally defeat them. When all three are defeated and you’ve combined the three wave swords into their ultimate form, the final boss is then but a bit of backtracking away. While you’d expect him to be the most interesting challenge of the bosses, yet, he’s instead a total pushover because of the incredible power of the assembled wave sword. At least he looks cool, I guess.

While there are multiple games in this style of play – such as Zelda II, Faxanadu, or Konami’s own Castlevania II – I would probably consider this the best among them, though my disdain for these types of games leaves that a somewhat hollow praise. The game’s music and visuals are both great, and the combat is most frequent and most enjoyable when compared to those others. The setting is also fairly unique in featuring post-apocalypse, futuristic feudal Japan in a very slightly cartoony style. While Getsu Fuuma Den never received a sequel, it was relatively well-liked, at least by the staff of Konami.

Fuuma was later featured in the Wai Wai World series (along with Kong), and then later given his own stage and appearance as a playable character in 2010’s Castlevania: Harmony of Despair (though his appearance was in DLC not released until 2011). His appearance in Harmony of Despair marked his first appearance, stateside. Although it was never released over here, we did see the game’s engine and basic design recycled in the notoriously disliked Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game for the NES, which really didn’t understand Getsu Fuuma Den’s strengths.

[Progress disclosure: beaten on hardware with usage of a guide]