If you’ve read a few of my reviews, you know I often mention my backlog. I’ve made a concerted effort to work through the treasure trove of games I own or have always wanted to play the last few years, and it’s been a fulfilling process.
It wasn’t too long ago that I completed Phantasy Star, many years after first playing it. Thanks to a number of enhancements that allowed the player to determine how much they valued their time, the SEGA AGES release of Phantasy Star proved to be an enjoyable way to finally roll credits. Well naturally, that set me up to play Phantasy Star II.
For Halloween, my friend and I compiled a list of related games and played them, usually for a short period of time. One that we devoted more time to was Fester’s Quest for the Nintendo Entertainment System. It was developed and published by Sunsoft and released in the USA in 1989. The game stars uncle Fester from the TV show The Addams Family as he attempts to prevent an alien invasion.
My friend and I took turns playing, handing off to the other when we died. We saw Fester via a top-down perspective as we explored the city around him. We were quickly greeted by enemy aliens whom Fester had to shoot to defeat. Often times they would drop pickups. These pickups varied; we most commonly came across money, but there were also weapon upgrades and downgrades, as well as usable items.
Money would allow Fester to buy hot dogs and restore his health, but he had a very limited amount of health; two hits and it was game over. Another item we came across frequently was keys. Keys allowed Fester to get into houses where family members were taking shelter. They would provide Fester with important items. One my friend and I liked was the TNT which was very helpful in defeating stronger enemies.
It didn’t take long for my friend and me to explore to small area available to us. To progress, Fester had to go underground and get to an otherwise inaccessible area of the city. We only made it out once though. The underground consisted of corridors which made it very difficult for us depending on how upgraded Fester’s gun was.
As we accumulated upgrades, Fester’s gun got stronger, faster, and sometimes had a wider bullet spread. This combination of wide bullet spread and narrow corridors was bothersome. Luckily, our enemies would sometimes drop weapon downgrades which allowed us to “fine tune” Fester’s gun to our needs. We spent a lot of time accumulating enemy drops so we maxed out a few items, but we never maxed out Fester’s gun.
So my friend and I didn’t get very far in Fester’s Quest. We both thought the game was tough, but that our deaths were mostly our fault. I wish we could’ve maxed out Fester’s gun and maybe that would have helped us underground, but I guess Sunsoft didn’t want people to max out everything very quickly. Fester’s Quest is supposed to have first-person dungeon-crawling so that makes me want to give it another go. Unfortunately, Fester’s Quest doesn’t have a save feature and each time we died, Fester began with the same amount of items and upgrades, but he always started at the very beginning, so completion is unlikely.
Instead of weaving an interesting tale of space intrigue and drama, Star Soldier for the Nintendo Entertainment System focuses on gameplay that requires memorization and quick reflexes.
Developed by Hudson Soft and published by Taxan in 1989 for the NES, Star Soldier is a vertically scrolling shoot ‘em up set in space. While the plot is never touched upon in the game, there is a single paragraph in the manual that sets the stage. Starbrain, an evil computer is roaming space with waves of enemy ships and robot creatures and are destroying anything in their path. The Galactic Empire decides to send in their best star soldier along with the best ship in their Galactic Fleet, Caesar to take care of Starbrain. And that’s the plot. It’s basically identical to any other space shoot ‘em up, but I didn’t purchase Star Soldier for the story, no, I purchased it for the gameplay.
Piloting Caesar I flew through space (vertically mind you) shooting down Starbrain’s waves of minions, of which there were plenty. And instead of simply palette-swapping enemies (same enemy design, different stats and color) Hudson Soft created a large array of enemies that had their own patterns that I needed to memorize to be successful.
Every enemy type moved and attacked me differently which means I had to deal with nearly every enemy type in a different way. And with the exception of a few, the enemies weren’t kind enough to attack me one at a time, they attacked me in waves. Each wave was wholly composed of one enemy type, but a lot of that enemy type. With each stage lasting at least a few minutes, I had to deal with many waves that required unique strategies. The key to success was learning how to cope with each enemy type, and if that didn’t pan out I could try and hide from them.
One of the things that I found polarizing about Star Soldierwas the stage design. While the game takes place in space, I wasn’t just flying through twinkling stars. Each stage had something more to it; some had stage-long space stations in the process of being built while other stages had me flying around floating landmasses. I had the ability to fly under most of the construction and most of the floating landmasses, but not every single one. This was confusing and added another level of memorization to the game. Why would I want to fly beneath these structures though?
Well, when I flew underneath them I could avoid enemies and enemy fire, but I’d lose my ability to fire too. This mechanic was helpful when I confronted a wave of dive bombing enemies that moved very fast as they would fly over the structure while I was under it. Coming out from underneath these structures was difficult to time however and I lost many lives running into stray bullets or just crashing into enemies. I ended up avoiding flying underneath structures as much as I could because it messed with the rhythm I had built up and usually led to easily avoidable deaths.
Star Soldier required a lot of memorization and for the first hour, it was more about learning how the enemies act and how I should react than actual stage progression. I didn’t get very far until I had that understanding, then I was able to get a little farther in the game each time I played. I had to build that base knowledge of how Star Soldier operated, and then learn each stage and apply the tactics I developed. Sometimes I’d have a good rhythm going and get far without losing lives, but once I began doing bad, it was hard to get back in that rhythm. I wasn’t able to complete the game though; of the sixteen stages I only made it to the seventh, but I was extremely satisfied making it that far. One thing that helped me get that far was earning extra lives.
I was awarded extra lives at fifty-thousand points, two hundred thousand points, and beyond that I’m not sure. Killing enemies aided in accumulating points, but what really helped was finding hidden enemies. On the half-built space stations and floating landmasses were hidden enemies that would appear after I shot the space they occupied a few times. Instead of giving me a standard amount of points, I got a larger reward for each one destroyed. I initially got five hundred points, but this moved up to one thousand, four thousand, ten thousand, forty-thousand, and so on for each one found. This added yet another element of memorization to the game.
After I understood the enemies, the stage design, and had plenty of lives I could finally defeat Starbrain and this brings me to the last thing I want to talk about: the boss fights. At the end of each stage I fought Starbrain, and at the end of each fourth stage I fought Big Starbrain. Defeating Starbrains and Big Starbrains wasn’t that difficult of a task. Their attacks were easily avoidable as were their movements. Big Starbrain was a little more difficult as I had much more to destroy, but I rarely lost a life in these battles. However, if I didn’t defeat them quickly enough, they would escape and I would have to attempt the stage over again. This didn’t concern me too much though as it only happened once.
Star Soldier was a challenging, but fun shoot ‘em up that employed some interesting mechanics. I appreciated that there was a large amount of unique enemies instead of palette-swapped versions. Dealing with each type was challenging, but rewarding once I took out an entire wave. The ability to interact with the stages was interesting, but as is the case with the story, I was ambivalent towards it. Having the same two bosses repeated throughout the game wasn’t a sticking point for me, I was glad that I knew what to expect at the end of a level and would have to restart or learn another boss’ patterns. The manual contains helpful information and tips for the game and I found a complete copy for the NES cheap, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessary to enjoy the game. And I did enjoy Star Soldier; after half a dozen hours of play I’d gotten enough out of it, but I would recommend it for anyone looking for a classic shoot ‘em up.
The third beat ‘em up my friend and I played through recently was Golden Axe. Like the Streets of Rage games we played beforehand, it was developed and published by Sega, although Golden Axe was released as an arcade game before being ported to the Sega Genesis, the version we played.
Whereas Streets of Rage was set in an eighties or nineties version of a corrupted city, Golden Axe is set in medieval times. The three playable characters set out to rescue the king and princess who has been kidnapped by an evil ne’er-do-well named Death Adder. The plot is typical of the setting, as are the playable characters, a barbarian named Ax Battler, an Amazon named Tyris Flare, and a dwarf named Gillius Thunderhead. Unlike the plots in the Streets of Rage games where they appeared only as text at the beginning and ends, there are story bits between each level in Golden Axe, marking the progress the warriors make.
Throughout the levels my friend and I were attacked by Death Adder’s henchmen. The setting of Golden Axe allowed for the enemies to be more varied compared to Streets of Rage, although there were many who were the same model, just different statistics and a different color. Most of the bosses were repeated throughout the game and towards the end they used unfair tactics, such as the final boss’ proclivity to knocking us down and zapping us with magic, taking two of our health bars in one swoop.
And this brings me to my complaint about Golden Axe. Golden Axewas super tough, even playing on easy my friend and I had a difficult time getting to the seventh stage (eight stages total) and we eventually used a cheat code to skip levels. I normally would want to attempt completing a game without the use of cheat codes, but it seemed like we didn’t have a shot.
With combos, we could get up to five hits in on an enemy, but it was difficult lining up correctly to do so. And I personally felt like I wasn’t getting enough response after hitting the attack button. I’m not sure exactly why I felt this way, perhaps it was the sound design of the hits, they sounded peculiar, not what I would expect from a metal weapon, or perhaps because I didn’t enjoy the sluggish character movement.
Rather than having a single health bar that depletes in differing amounts depending on the strength of attacks, my friend and I were instead given a health bar that consisted of what turned out to be three hits or combos. This made it feel like we had less of a shot just because we couldn’t take a lot of damage, couple that with the enemies’ ability to keep you in their combo if hit and it lead to frustration for both my friend and I.
But the most frustrating aspect for us was the difficulty of the final boss. We originally got to the seventh stage before losing our continues. We opted then to use a cheat code to select the final level and another to add nine continues. The final boss took an enormous amount of damage and he was able to evade the bulk of our attacks, and he had a little help with the aid of some invincible skeletons. Later on in the fight, he began using magic after knocking us down, taking out two of our health bars. He was difficult and we used plenty of continues but we ultimately conquered him and saved the king and princess.
Golden Axe was a mixed bag for me. A lot of the stages had a similar feel, but there were a few that had interesting settings, and they were fairly short which I liked. The soundtrack seemed meager, but the tracks present were phenomenal and I found myself humming them as we played, especially the first stage’s song. I appreciated having story bits throughout the game rather than at the beginning and ends. But I disliked the reuse of lack of standard enemy design and the similar looks of the majority of the stages. And more importantly, I disliked the way the game felt. It’s a hard concept to quantify but it is ultimately what made me like Golden Axe less than Streets of Rage and Streets of Rage 2. Golden Axe was equally filled with parts I liked and disliked and for that I recommend it only to those seeking out another beat ‘em up.