Ganbare Goemon 2

Ganbare Goemon 2: Kiteretsu Shōgun Magginesu [1]
SNES, 1993
Developer: Konami
Publisher: Konami

GoemonMapA few months back, I picked up a stack of random Super Famicom carts at a local flea market here in Philadelphia. One of those games was Ganbare Goemon 2, the sequel to the game released in the US as Legend of the Mystical Ninja.  Ganbare Goemon 2 never made it the States but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have its charms.

Unfortunately, what those charms are, I am not precisely sure, because I don’t speak a word of Japanese. I’m actually kind of happy I don’t understand what’s going on, because this game is objectively absurd, and it’s nice to be surprised by complete insanity every once in a while:

I’ll be playing through this one nice and slow, and posting my thoughts as I do so. Stay tuned for more!


[1] Translation: “Let’s Go! Goemon 2: Very Strange General Magginesu”

Super Dodge Ball

superdodgeballcoverNekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen
PC Engine, 1990
Developer: KID
Publisher: Naxat Soft

Like many gamers who grew up in the heyday of the NES, I have fond memories of playing Super Dodge Ball.  Tecnhos’ 1988 classic was an early highlight in what I lovingly refer to as the “fake sports” genre; a game that, without licensing any official league, athletes, or actual sport, provided you with all of the thrills of a “legitimate” athletic simulation, with a little extra panache to boot. The NES Super Dodge Ball replicated the excitement, drama, and intrigue of fourth period gym without the need for you to actually get beaned in the head by a rubber ball.

That is, when it wasn’t stuttering, blinking, and running at a snail’s pace every time the action picked up. Super Dodge Ball was a great concept, but actually playing it could be extremely frustrating at times. The game’s ambitions far outstripped what its designers were capable of getting out of the NES in 1988. It wasn’t uncommon for sprites to simply vanish from the screen, and the framerate dipped to borderline unplayable levels. It was a lot like playing a UbiSoft game in 2014 (zing!).

So when I learned that Super Dodge Ball had received a facelift for the PC Engine,[1] and that some guy on eBay was selling it for less than $30.00, I knew I had to have it. If the game was halfway decent on the NES, it had to be at least twice as good on PCE, right?

The answer to that seemingly rhetorical question is an emphatic “YES.” The extra power of the PC Engine allows Super Dodge Ball [2] to fully deliver on the promise of its predecessor.

Finally, the grudge match the world has been waiting for.

The rules of the game are simple enough. The court is divided into two halves, and each team consists of four infielders and three outfielders. The object of the game is to defeat the opposing team’s infielders. Outfielders are confined to the sidelines on the opposing team’s half of the court – their primary function is to toss the ball back to the infielders, but they are capable of mounting a modest degree of offense as well. Confused? Well, just watch the video at the end of the article and it will all make sense.

I can only assume this is a rules pamphlet.

So the rules of the game are simple, but… WHY? Why do I want to play dodge ball? I need some motivation!

Well, that’s a good enough reason, I guess. This is the introduction to the game’s Tournament Mode, in which we take team Japan on a globe-trotting quest to prove that the land of the rising sun will not suffer beanballs lightly.

SuperDodgeBallPlaneAnd by “globe-trotting quest,” I mean “charmingly racist dodge ball safari.” You’ll travel to many exotic locales and throw dodge balls at any number of classic ethnic archetypes, including….


Jolly old London town, where you’ll play on the banks of the Thames against a team of angry, pasty, cod eaters!


Iceland! While penguins look on, you’ll battle it out with some vaguely Eskimo looking dudes as you slip and slide over some glaciers!


China! Play against a team of jaundiced obese children in front of  a picture of Chairman Mao! Bonus points if you kill some sparrows with your dodge ball.


Kenya, where you’ll play against a team of extremely fast athletes on the sun-scorched Serengeti!


And of course, the worst nation of them all, AMERICA. You’ll compete against a team of roided-out supermen on the top of some fictitious skyscraper frighteningly close to the statue of liberty!

And what is your prize, for defeating this murderers’ row of dodge ball assassins?


Superman descends from the sky to present you with a trophy, of course, presumably renouncing his American citizenship in the process. Nippon ichi!

You can play through tournament mode on loop for hours, but that’s for chumps. The real action is in the PC Engine exclusive QUEST MODE. Why would a dodge ball game have a quest mode, you ask?

Aliens? To quote Will Smith, “AW, HELL NO.” Quest Mode tracks team Japan on its quest to hunt down the intergalactic asshats that wasted some untold amount of fuel to fly to Earth and bean us in the head. How does this play out you ask? Well, surprisingly similar to Tournament Mode, at first. You’re immediately dropped into a match with a rival Japanese team which plays out exactly like any other bout in the game. However, when things finish up, we are presented with… Dialog options?


While I don’t speak a word of Japanese, based purely on gameplay experience, I’m willing to bet the post match conversation between you and the opposing team’s captain breaks down like this:

Him: Yo dawg, good match. You beat us good. Mind if I leave these simps behind and go on the road with you?

You: Hell yeah, brah. We lookin’ for these aliens. They done beaned us in the head.

Him: You serious, man, aliens? Let’s do this.

You: Fo’ sho. Hey, you seen a UFO?

Him: Naw man, try checking any other country with a national dodge ball team.

And that’s exactly how quest mode progresses. You travel from country to country looking for your alien rivals, recruiting each team’s best infielder along the way.  Each recruitable player has has two unique “super throws” he can utilize against the enemy, which range from conceivable (100 mph beanball) to absolutely ridiculous (dodge balls dropping from orbit). The catch is that you only have four infielder slots on your team – you have to kick someone off to make room for someone new. You have to pay attention to your adversaries’ skills in order to determine whether they are worth recruiting.

Weirdly, they never seem too upset when you ask them to leave.

As quest mode progresses, you will slowly discover that alien invaders have been impersonating members of each nation’s dodge ball team.


And as you discover each alien invader, its corresponding nation is wiped off the game’s map, meaning you can no longer recruit from that country.


When you’ve finally uncovered the last of the body-snatching fiends….


Let’s just say it’s a pretty epic conclusion.

All goofiness aside, there’s not much to find fault with in Super Dodge Ball for the PC Engine. It’s a wonderful game with tight controls, colorful graphics, and a refreshing sense of goofiness that is rarely found in the sports games of today, fake or otherwise. Buy it, emulate it, steal it, do what you need to do…. but I heartily recommend that you play this game.

And on that note, I leave you with this – The greatest comeback in fake sports history, as Kenya Bill overcomes insurmountable odds against team Moonman:


[1] The Japanese name for the console known as the Turbo Grafx in the US.

[2] The actual name of the game, as indicated at the beginning of this post, is Nekketsu Kōkō Dodgeball Bu: PC Bangai Hen – Literally, “Hot-Blooded High School Dodgeball Club: PC Extra Edition. For ease of reference, we sill simply refer to the game as Super Dodge Ball.

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua: Rise! Dolphin! (Part 3)

In which Dolphin undergoes new employee orientation.

IntroPart 1Part 2

Improbably, Dolphin has won his first match.  Since there are no other discernible options, and Dolphin can’t read Japanese, ON TO THE SECOND MATCH.


Labor relations sure work differently in Japan. It appears Dolphin’s second opponent will be his boss, Giant Baba. As this game takes place in 1997, Baba  should be about 60. Jeez. While Dolphin is keenly aware that fighting your boss is a time-honored pro wrestling tradition, and he probably wouldn’t be doing this had he not shoved that pine tar down his third base coach’s throat, this is ridiculous. Giant or no, he shouldn’t be fighting a 60-year-old man.


1:06 – Yep, easier than medicare fraud. Dolphin starts off with a strong German suplex. Don’t go anywhere kids. You might not have too much more time with granddad.


1:14 – Well…


1:19 – That’s….


1:31 – Something else.  Hmm.  Dolphin is really getting flogged. Looks like Baba has no intention of collecting a pension any time soon. This is no good. After dealing with roughly a minute and a half (including intros) of punishment at the hands of his forbears, Dolphin does what any self-respecting member of the younger generation would do – he starts taking any advantage he can get.


1:46 – Yes, Dolphin just rammed a 60-year-old man’s head into the ringpost. Dolphin reminds you that anybody that gets in that ring knows the risk, and he had nothing to do with those recent updates to Baba’s life insurance policy.


2:51 – Let this be a lesson to you folks. You can lose all of your neck in less than three minutes, if you’re not careful. The fans seem to love Dolphin’s strategy. I hear “acromegaly” is Latin for “head filled with candy.” Let’s find out if that’s true!


4:01 – It appears that Dolphin does not fare so well when he employs legitimate tactics. Baba is reversing everything in sight.

7:08 – You know, one of the more popular features of this game is that “every move can be reversed!” Dolphin is beginning to wonder if “every move will be reversed” would be more appropriate.


8:25 – Great googledy moogledy. After Dolphin’s 19th attempt at a Dolphinplex, Baba slaps on an STF and Dolphin’s neck jumps immediately to 74% damage.  It appears that Dolphin’s spinal trauma has carried over from his last match with Johnny Ace. Whatever; we’ve still got 26% neck left.


9:49 – Listen, Dolphin doesn’t have much going for him. He’s got an ICS degree in gun repair, two families in two different Canadian provinces, a failed stint as a shortstop, and a mastery of approximately four basic wrestling moves. One of those moves is the Irish whip to the ringpost, and he’s not getting back in the ring until he’s sure he’s squeezed everything he can out of that inanimate metal column.


12:34 – Well, it was a nice run, wasn’t it flipper? You just had your neck completely destroyed by a crippled sexagenarian. No way you’re living this one down.


13:48 – Sweet fancy Moses! It took nearly 15 minutes, but Dolphin finally did it! Did Baba’s heart give out? Did he age himself out of contention? Dolphin doesn’t care though, because he just bought himself his second ‘W,’ all for the low, low price of his neck.

If you’d like to stare into the abyss for about 14 minutes, here’s the full match:

Two matches in, and Dolphin has already secured his future in a cervical halo. Nevertheless, Dolphin understands that the only way out is through: No neck, no skills, no problems. MATCH 3!

JunEntranceThis is Jun Akiyama, and his theme is titled “Shadow Explosion.” Dolphin has never seen a shadow explode, but he assumes that it is worse for him than a standard explosion. Youtube research reveals that Jun Akiyama has a proud tradition of dropping people on the back of their heads.  This, of course, bodes well for Dolphin.


1:23 – Not off to a bad start. Dolphin is able to string some offense together right out of the gate.


1:33 – Two moves. It only took two moves for Akiyama to snap the stack of dimes Dolphin calls a neck. It’s gonna be a long career (mode). Dolphin is tempted to hit the reset button.

1:49 – Dolphin has quickly abandoned any pretense of winning this match legitimately. TO THE RINGPOST!  It only took him three more seconds than last time to come to this conclusion!


2:56 – YES! So long, and thanks for all the fish! Dolphin’s catch phrases admittedly need work. If the last match is any indication, we’ve only got about eleven minutes of sustained neck damage remaining before Dolphin puts this chump away.


4:22 – Blowhole plunge! Dolphin is swimming down the road to victory!


4:48 – Err… the announcer just yelled “exploder” in English. This is probably not good for Dolphin’s neck rating. This suspicion is confirmed by Dolphin’s pained squeals.

6:06 – This time it sounded like “exploiter,” which is appropriate, because Dolphin is starting to feel more than a little used up.


6:38 – Dude, dolphins are a threatened species. You’ll burn for this.


6:54 – As he’s going nowhere fast, Dolphin decides to roll to the only place where he seems to be worth a damn – outside the ring.  Well guess what: you can never go home again.

8:55 – Dolphin is beginning to wonder if it actually means anything when your neck gets broken in this game, as he has to give up the ghost to Akiyama at about the 9 minute mark, despite dropping him on his 0% neck several times.

Well, to quote Dolphin’s favorite artist, Meatloaf, 2 out of 3 ain’t bad.  At least he didn’t lose to the geriatric.

Grab a handkerchief and cry yourself to sleep as you watch Dolphin’s heartbreaking loss:

NEXT TIME: Montage!

Wednesday Weirdness – Murdered: Soul Suspect

While finishing up my recent playthrough of Murdered: Soul Suspect, I noticed something slightly weird about the photos in the police station.  Also, apparently, the Salem police force LOVES Deus Ex: Human Revolution.  It’s literally on every computer screen in the building.

One sentence review: Don’t let your gameplay get in the way of your plot.

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua: Rise! Dolphin! (Part 2)

In which our intrepid hero finds no practical use for his decaying infielding skills.

The first and second posts in this series will undoubtedly increase your enjoyment of this installment.

Now that he’s successfully completed his mandatory new hire processing and and picked out some sweet threads, it’s time for Dolphin to step into the squared circle. Sure, he’s a little long in the tooth, and he’s got no real practical experience, but with nearly a decade of single A under his belt, he’s got some fundamental athletic prowess that will undoubtedly carry the day against whatever jabroni the higher ups toss his way.

Caring not who he will crush, Dolphin makes his way to the ring:


Clearly, great things are expected of Dolphin. He’s already got his own theme! Prepared by the legendary Sega Sound Team, the driving force behind such hits as “Green Hill Zone,” “Space Harrier Theme,” and “Game Over Yeah,” no less! Note that Dolphin is so manly he uses the original Greek “Heracles” instead of the far less tough “Hercules” as the basis of his theme. No one stands a chance. Who will Dolphin be using as a springboard to glory?

Well, turns out it’s Johnny Ace, better known to US wrestling fans as John Laurinaitis, one time director of talent relations for the WWE. Turns out he actually had a serious run in AJPW back in the 90s. Also turns out he was a wrestling aqua sock enthusiast.  Having a past as an actual legitimate sportsman instead of some lame extreme “athlete,” Dolphin has to have a bit of a leg up here. Enough blabbering. TO THE MATCH!

0:29 – Dolphin is demoralized as he quickly realizes that Sega Sound Team has also done Johnny Ace’s music. Wikipedia reveals that Johnny Ace’s theme was actually Kickstart My Heart by Motley Crüe. This can only be a mind game. There’s no way anyone would otherwise be willing forgo such a grand entrance song.

1:30 – Things get off to a rocky start, as Dolphin’s clumsy first move is reversed into a swinging neckbreaker. Dolphin starts to take a pretty serious beating at the hands of big Johnny. Good thing he pre-loaded on those pain pills. Note that as Dolphin takes a beating, his life bar drops, but the meter directly above his name increases. This indicates that the crowd is behind him and his momentum is building! They must be remembering that time back in ’88 when he set the single season hit by pitch record. Dolphin’s past in baseball has apparently garnered him some goodwill with the fans.

2:39 – The crowd appears to be very impressed with Dolphin’s apparent love of taking unanswered blows to the face. With each elbow crammed down his throat, Dolphin can feel a groundswell of support rising from the crowd. As they begin chanting his name, Dolphin wonders why they aren’t cheering for the clearly superior athlete. Johnny must be pissed. Dolphin also notes that the crowd is a flat bitmap, and begins to wonder if he is in some kind of existential hell.

3:00 – Realizing his dream is fading, Dolphin digs deep into the bag of tricks he learned at wrestler’s correspondence school, and he starts to mount some offense! The crowd support is making it a little easier for him to time his moves – he’s not out of the woods yet, but he’s narrowing the gap.

4:00 – Dolphin begins to notice that every successful hit he lands on Mr. Ace seems to be increasing the crowd’s support of him as well. Dolphin is confused about Japanese culture and wonders if he should have eaten all that octopus before his match.

5:00 – Ace damn near takes Dolphin’s head off with a lariat from hell, and goes for the cover. Dolphin kicks out before 2, but only at the expense of some of his crowd support. Dolphin fails to see why escaping defeat would somehow lessen his crowd support. Then again, Japan is a strange place. They eat with sticks.

5:25 – Dolphin has had enough of this crap. If he loses this first match, he’ll have wasted five minutes of his life, and he’ll have to cancel Christmas for at least two of his families. He rolls out of the ring.

5:34 –

AJPWAceStunnerYep, that was a Stone Cold Stunn…. Ace Crusher. Crap.  Can’t get worse than that, though, can it? Nobody can pin you outside of the ring, and there doesn’t appear to be a countout here. Dolphin will just sit tight for a bit.

5:45 –

AJPWAceNeckSWEET LORD.  Do you SEE that thing? CLEARLY, this second Ace Crusher has done some serious damage to Dolphin’s neck. Why else would it say “Danger” three times and have a little picture of a bomb? Presumably, this means that Dolphin only has 70% more neck left before he explodes. This is not a positive development.

6:10 – After ambling around aimlessly, pondering how to win this match with only 70% neck remaining, Dolphin manages to ram Ace’s head into the ringpost with a satisfying thud. This seems to yield positive results, and Ace doesn’t seem to have been programm… er, trained to deal with this. It isn’t long before Ace is receiving warnings about his cervical spine as well.  Weirdly, the crowd loves it. Sick.

8:00 – Hey, we’re starting to have a nice little back and forth here. Maybe now that Mr. Ace fully appreciates that Dolphin is a scumbag who is willing to do anything (within his limited four move arsenal) to avoid defeat, he’s treating him with a little too much respect. Dolphin is not to be respected. Ace will learn this the hard way. Nobody respects Dolphin and gets away with it.

10:00 –


Improbably, after getting elbowed in the face and taking a vertical suplex in the middle of the ring, Dolphin hits a relatively routine belly-to-back suplex…. and then….


Wow. This makes absolutely no sense. Dolphin had absolutely no skill going into this match, the little noise meter at the top of the screen seems to indicate the crowd is fully behind Ace, and Dolphin had just eaten a series of devastating maneuvers right in the middle of the ring. If Dolphin didn’t know better, he’d say this was fixed. Dolphin is silently thankful that this is all happening in 1997, and the Internet wrestling community is not well developed enough to complain about this kind of lazy, disappointing booking.


Tune in next week, as Dolphin perfects his craft,  attempts to scale the language barrier, and considers taking out a Lloyd’s of London insurance policy!



All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua: Rise! Dolphin! (Part 1)

In which we start an aging shortstop down the path towards championship gold.

If you haven’t already checked it out, take a look at the first post in this series.

No sense in delaying thiokngs; let’s get right to it. The quest for the Triple Crown Championship starts now, and I’m already 17 years behind schedule. Time to dig into AJPW’s charmingly titled “Featuring Mode” and grab that belt.


Featuring Mode is equal parts “create-a-wrestler” and “career mode.” Rather than let you choose the appearance and attributes of your character outright, in a design decision I can only describe as “innately Japanese,” AJPW requires you to fill out a job application in order to determine what type of grappler you’ll be portraying.

All right, let’s get…


Huh.  Well, that’s something else.  Fortunately, the same translation guide I used back in 1997 is still publicly available.  ECrouser, I may never meet you in person, but when I win the gold, I’m dedicating it to you.

First,  we’re presented with a list of names for our wrestler:


Back in 1997 I’d have been inclined to pick “Bastard.” That’s a name that inspires fear, respect, and paternity suits. But this is 2014, baby, and I need a name that says “experience.” I need a moniker that says, intelligence, experience, and general superiority. They often say that the majestic bottle nose is the most intelligent mammal on the planet, so let’s go with “DOLPHIN.” Remember that name, for it is the sound of your doom.

Next option: Choose your wrestler’s age. As I’m writing this, I’m 32, so my wrestler is 32.  Easy choice. Next question. Let’s just ignore the fact that 32 is the maximum age the game lets you choose, because that is not depressing at all.

So we’re a 32-year-old wrestler named Dolphin. The game now wants to know what prior sports experience our majestic Dolphin is bringing to the dance:


One can assume that if Dolphin is entering the ring as a second career at the ripe middlish age of 32, things probably didn’t end up so hot for him during his first athletic endeavor.  Much like me, returning to AJPW 17 years after the fact, Dolphin is looking to recapture faded glory. Of all the sports on the list, baseball would have probably garnered him highest base level of glory from which to fade. No disrespect to arm wrestlers, drummers, or ???ists, but chicks dig the long ball. Dolphin used to be a shortstop.

Now we’re on to the substance of our job application – a personality test of sorts. Dolphin used to bat 6th for the Blue Jays’ Single-A affiliate. He’s used to dealing with the tough questions, so this should be no sweat.


Question: All Japan Puroresu is Giant Baba?
1) Of Course
2) It is the four lords of heaven
3) It is Rusher Kimura

Crap. Dolphin was not prepared to respond to any queries of an existential nature. Thankfully, Dolphin has access to a smartphone. It appears that Giant Baba was the founder of All Japan Pro Wrestling, essentially making him Dolphin’s boss.  Dolphin knows where his bread is buttered, so Giant Baba it is.

Question: How should a Pro Wrestler win his matches?
1) Pretty (Technically sound) Suplex should decide
2) The big move done in the heat of the match should decide the victory
3) It does not matter

Dolphin is in this for the money. He’s got three kids in Durham, Ontario that don’t know his name. There’s child support to pay, and it just does not matter.


Question: What technique do you like?
1) Counter attacks
2) Throwing
3) Stretching

Baseball. Throwing. Duh.

Question: What should the Pro Wrestler's goal be?
1) Strength
2) Championship Belt
3) Fans enjoying the match

Well, Dolphin is in this first and foremost for himself. Undoubtedly, he’s already strong, and fans will probably enjoy the match no matter what if he obtains the Championship Belt, so let’s go with option 3.


Question: Tomorrow is your Pro Wrestling debut. What are you thinking?
1) Think positive
2) Concentrate
3) Win at all costs

Dolphin has got child support to pay. Number 3! It’s all about that cheddar. Win at all costs.


Question: Why did you become a pro wrestler?
1) To become strong
2) ( Not Sure )
3) To become a famous wrestler

You know, I’m not really sure why I’m doing this at all. Whether it’s a translation error or not, we’re going with option 2.

Question: To become a strong wrestler requires endless stamina and techniques. How do you do it?
1) Extra long training
2) ( Not Sure )
3) Eat three times as much

As a former professional baseball player. Dolphin understands that physique does not matter. He will eat three times as much as the normal human.

Question: Your opponent misses a wild attack. So your counter attack begins. How do you start?
1) Yell to get your ki up
2) Slap your face to get your ki up
3) Do a surprisingly cold and precise counter

Like his namesake murdering sharks with a nose to the abdomen, Dolphin will be dispatching his foes with precise counterattacks.

Wow! Those were some intense questions. Based on our responses, we’re now presented with some cosmetic choices:


Way too Zubaz. Dolphin knows better than this.


No sense in wearing a mask. The good people of Durham, Ontario already know what Dolphin looks like. Plus, hiding from child support payments is downright shameful.


Nope.  Dolphin is a lot of things, but Irish isn’t one of them.

Oooh. Perfect. Simple, yet stylish. Beautiful magenta tights with a zebra print accent? Western efficiency meets eastern style. We have our Dolphin, ladies and gentlemen.

Next time, we’ll be leading our newly minted wrestler into battle. Tune in next time – same Dolphin time, same Dolphin channel!

Onward to Part 2!

All Japan Pro-Wrestling Featuring Virtua: The Legend Begins

AJPWCoverAll Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua
Sega Saturn, 1997
Developer: Scarab
Publisher: Sega

The late 90s were a great time to be a fan of pro wrestling video games.  As the red-hot ratings war between the WWF and WCW escalated,[1] the genre started receiving an unprecedented degree of attention and care from western publishers. Companies such as Acclaim[2] and THQ[3] began packing their U.S. wrestling games with true to life wrestler entrances, detailed creation suites, motion captured animation, and a degree of graphical polish previously reserved for simulations of legitimate sports. Yes, publishers were finally treating wrestling games like big ticket releases, and PSX and N64 owners were in the midst of a golden age of virtual wrasslin’.

Saturn owners, like me, however, were not so lucky. The Saturn began dying a slow death in North America right from its surprise launch in May of 1995, and by the time pro wrestling’s renaissance had begun, Sega’s 32-bit workhorse was little more than an also-ran in the console race. The big WWF and WCW titles never landed on Saturn, and unless you had access to imported games, you were stuck watching the rebirth of the pro wrestling genre from the Spanish announce table.

AJPWcharselectFortunately, I had a very generous older brother who did have access to imported games, and on Christmas morning, 1997, I unwrapped a pristine copy of the Saturn classic, All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua. I was ecstatic. Sure, I wouldn’t be able to play as Stone Cold, Scott Hall, the Rock, or any of my other favorites – but I’d finally be able to play as Stan Hansen, Kenta Kobashi, that dude that got knocked out in the Brawl For All, and countless other combatants that guys on geocities sites swore were the greatest wrestlers on the planet. Strangely, that last sentence was not sarcastic in the least.

Kenta & Ace
Every red-blooded American wanted to see these guys wrestle back in ’97.

All Japan Pro Wrestling Featuring Virtua is a true Saturn classic which took a completely different approach to the pro wrestling genre than its western contemporaries. I spent countless hours playing AJPW, trying to master its deceptively complex grappling mechanics and intricate damage system, but the rigorous pressures of being a teenager in suburban Philadelphia proved to be too much for me to handle. I couldn’t balance my hectic high school schedule with my virtual pro wrestling career, and I had to put down my controller before I could achieve the game’s ultimate goal: the Triple Crown Championship.

Nice hardware.

Over the next few weeks, I’ll be replaying AJPW in an effort to slay that white whale; I’m finally going capture that championship belt that eluded me all those years ago. In the process, I also hope to shed some light on what a weird and wonderful experience it was being a Saturn owner in the late 90s. Crack open a Steveweiser and dig in.

Onward to Part 1!

[1] At the peak of the “Monday Night Wars,” approximately 10 million viewers were watching wrestling per week.

[2] WWF Warzone, WWF Attitude, ECW Hardcore Revolution, ECW Anarchy Rulz

[3] The WWF Smackdown series, WCW vs. the World, WCW vs. NWO World Tour, and many others.

X-Kaliber 2097

SNES, 1994
Developer: Fupac/Winds
Publisher: Activision

I remember reading about X-Kaliber 2097 in Nintendo Power when I was in middle school. I remember learning that it would be one of the first games to feature a soundtrack by an ACTUAL recording artist. I remember slotting it into the third tier of my birthday wishlist, just in case my mom couldn’t find the games I actually wanted that year. So when I saw a refurbished and cleaned copy at a flea market nearly 20 years later for only FIVE DOLLARS, I thought, “hey, why not? I remember thinking this would be cool.”

I thought wrong.

[Please be advised that this article contains heavy spoilers for X-Kaliber 2097. If you are the type of person that cares about spoilers for a C-tier action game from 1994, however, you should probably seek professional help]

Criticizing the plot of a side-scrolling action game from early 1994 is a little unfair, but X-Kaliber feels like it was written by a Compuserve chatroom full of home-schooled anime fans.

The intro really sets the pace – Let’s take a trip to the greatest of all generic sci-fi locations, Neo N.Y. What happened to Old N.Y.? I dunno, but it must have been bad, as LIFE HAS GROUND TO A STANDSTILL AND THERE ARE NO MORE JOBS TO GO TO (Seriously, watch the intro). People are just going around doing what they are told or nothing at all. It sounds a lot like present day Detroit.

X-Kaliber RaptorANYWAY, Neo N.Y. is ruled by a guy in a purple suit named Raptor, who apparently works for a “global mob.” In order to “enforce order,” he has unleashed his private army of “Morphs” on the city. One wonders why you need to enforce order when people are doing “what they are told or nothing at all.” Sounds like things are pretty orderly already.

There are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way: A man named Slash (the player character), and his partner Alix. Raptor and Alix are repeatedly referred to as “agents,” so presumably they work for some kind of “agency.” Despite this, there are only two people that stand in Raptor’s way. Maybe that’s like how me and my friend Rob formed a gang that had no other members.

Despite this numbers disadvantage, all is not lost! Raptor has the X-Kailber, a magic sword that can rip through steel like rancid butter, yet can’t kill an enemy in less than two hits. Slash and his sword scare Raptor so much, that he and his subordinate, Kane, formulate a plan to draw Raptor out by kidnapping Alix. Once Slash shows up, they figure that they’ll defeat him, grab X-Kailber, and get back to imposing order.

There's always one fat boss.
His name is KANE. Get it? GET IT?

As you’d expect from a guy with such a rad name, Slash is having none of this. The player leads him on a rescue mission through Neo N.Y., using the titular X-Kaliber to systematically chop down Raptor’s subordinates (who have awesome names like “Chainsaw,” and “Dr. Blast”) one by one.

X-Kaliber 2097 BrotherSo, Slash, uh, slashes his ways through the requisite 16-bit skyscrapers, sewers, nightclubs, and laboratories, all the way to Raptor, only to find all along, that his arch-nemesis, whom he has apparently never met before, is his older brother! This shocking revelation really doesn’t seem to phase Slash all that much, but just as he is about to cut his estranged sibling to ribbons, Raptor lets him in on the shocking truth: Raptor’s entire operation is nothing but a puppet regime, propped up by gangster from another dimension named Krux. Of course, Krux has also kidnapped Alix.

X-Kaliber DogSlash, again, is having none of this. He walks right across the dimensional border, hell bent on rescuing his partner and destroying the looming threat of inter-dimensional organized crime. One would think that you’d aim a little higher than being a “gangster” if you could freely travel across different planes of existence; but I digress. After fighting through the beautiful countryside of Krux’s dimension, which, quite frankly, looks like a sea of floating turds, Slash encounters a gangster named Spuke, who drops another shocking plot revelation on us:

X-Kaliber 2097 Spuke2

My God! Slash somehow acquired X-Kaliber from the inter-dimensional gangsters? How did he manage to do this without learning about the fact that they were propping up the oppressive global mob that’s been depriving people of jobs and imposing order? Did the gangsters maybe just drop it somewhere, leaving Slash to absent-mindedly pick it up off the streets of Neo Hell’s Kitchen? We’ll never know. I’ll post a link to my X-Kaliber 2097 Fanfic Kickstarter a little later down the road, and with any luck, we’ll be able to resolve this as a community.

Spuke is no match for Slash’s magic sword, and Slash moves on to face Krux, who looks suspiciously looks a lot like Satan, or at bare minimum, a Venom album cover:

X-Kaliber 2097 Beast

After several continues, Slash quickly realizes that Krux’s weakness is jumping sword thrusts to the head, and he defeats the great inter-dimensional crime lord once and for all. Slash rescues Alix, and order is uh… renewed? I’m not exactly sure what happens, but a brief post-battle cut-scene advises us that the people of Neo N.Y. are inspired by the example set by Alix and Slash, and begin to live a life that is filled with parks to visit and jobs to go to. And thus, the world is saved.

In 1994, action games weren’t typically known as narrative powerhouses, nor did they typically attempt to be. X-Kaliber 2097, however, aspires to more, and fails miserably. Double Dragon, one of the forefathers of the genre, had the simplest of plots: Some guy punched your girlfriend and walked off with her; go get her back. At its core, X-Kaliber has the same plot: Your partner/girlfriend has been captured, and now you must rescue her. X-Kaliber, however, pads out its narrative with more ridiculous cliches and plot twists than its small frame can handle. When you’re going to be telling a story in less than 500 words of dialogue, less is more, and X-Kaliber 2097 is about 20 gallons of plot in a 5 gallon jug. A story that should have been nothing more than window dressing becomes a notable flaw.

In Japan, this game was released as Sword Maniac. Sword Maniac apparently had an entirely different plot, but with a title that awesome, they could have dispensed with a plot entirely. It practically writes itself: Maniac with sword runs through post-apocalyptic New York and fights Satan. That’s a story I can get behind.

X-Kaliber 2097 TattooPlot aside, X-Kaliber is about what you would expect from a mid-tier action game released in 1994. Graphics are competent, though mostly unspectacular. There are nice little graphical flourishes here and there – spotlights that follow the player during a boss fight, multiple scrolling layers in backgrounds, beautiful 16-bit cityscapes – but nothing X-Kaliber attempts is going to blow your mind, but it’s not unpleasant to look at.

At the time of the game’s release, much was made of the fact that it featured the music of techno/industrial group Psykosonik. Gamers of the era may remember Psykosonik for their contributions to the soundtrack for the first Mortal Kombat film. Internet research reveals that X-Kaliber’s soundtrack features chiptune versions of several songs from Pykosonik’s first album. As a result, the game’s soundtrack is above-average, if not spectacular. Despite this, you can’t help but feel like the sound designers may have been pushing the SNES a little too hard – as good as that sound chip was, it wasn’t going to emulate the sounds of a professionally produced contemporary techno outfit.

X-Kaliber 2097 DrBlastThe gameplay is simple and straightfoward. Slash has four basic attacks: a standard slash, an overhead swipe, a stab, and ranged fireball, which travels the length of the scree but leaves the player vulnerable for an extended period of time. Most, if not all, enemy attacks can be blocked by holding down the X button to assume a defensive stance, but in my playthrough, I found little reason to bother with defense: most enemies stick to fairly avoidable patterns. Bosses are an exercise in exploitation: defeating them is not a matter of mastering any of Slash’s techniques or memorizing attack patterns, but figuring out the one single tactic they haven’t been programmed to deal with (tip: it usually involves jumping and slashing or repeatedly holding out your sword and hoping they walk into it). All in all, the experience is wholly unremarkable.

X-Kaliber feels like it could have benefited from stronger direction. While it has flashes of graphical brilliance, and its soundtrack is well-composed, if not well-executed, the game never rises above the level of “competent.” The occasional song or anime style cut-scene will raise an eyebrow, but the whole package never comes together, and ultimately, the only truly memorable thing about the game is its painfully overwrought plot.

X-Kaliber couldn’t live up to its hype as a new release in 1994, and it failed to intrigue me as a historical curiosity in in 2014. Was it worth five clams? Probably. Could I recommend that you spend any of your precious time playing it? Probably not.

X-Kaliber 2097 Spuke

Dragon Force

Released to western audiences in November of 1996, Dragon Force is one of the Sega Saturn’s true classics.  While it would not be incorrect to call Dragon Force a real time strategy game, its unique brand of gameplay truly defies traditional genre classification.  It’s a one of a kind experience[1] that exemplifies the unconventional, “outside of the box” qualities that endeared Saturn owners to Sega’s console even as it was eclipsed by its generational rivals.

Dragon Force Junon SpecialDragon Force tells a *relatively* simple fantasy story of a divided continent on the precipice of a demonic invasion.  300 years ago,[2] the continent of Legendra was besieged by the dark god Madruk.  Legendra was saved only by the appearance of the Star Dragon, Harsgalt, who emerged to challenge Madruk.  While Harsgalt was victorious, he was unable to slay Madruk, merely seal him away.  300 years later, Madruk is poised to break that seal, and it falls on the eight members of the Dragon Force, who have inherited Harsgalt’s power, to unify the continent and brace for Madruk’s awakening.  The player assumes the role of one of the eight playable members of the Dragon Force – more often than not, the only one who is aware that he or she actually is a member of the Dragon Force.  The player must lead an army to conquer Legendra in an effort to locate the other seven members of the Dragon Force and bring stability to the land before Madruk reawakens.

Dragon Force Map
The player’s armies move along in real time along pre-defined “roads” on the map.

Each “week” of gameplay time is divided into two phases: a “strategic phase” where the player moves their armies and fights opposing forces, and an “administrative phase” where the player manages his generals and fortifications.  The strategic phase is where the meat of the game takes place, as the player moves his armies across the world map[3] in an effort to conquer enemy fortifications and defend his kingdom from invading forces.  Armies in Dragon Force are comprised of groups of generals, each of whom can command up to 100 troops when fully leveled.  When two Dragon Force Maparmies collide, Dragon Force switches to a side-view of the battlefield, and sprite based carnage ensues.  The player selects the starting formation of his troops, and as the battle progresses, he can command those troops to move around the battlefield as he sees fit.  With upwards of 200 sprites moving around the battlefield at any one moment, Dragon Force really showcases the Saturn’s 2D capabilities.

Adding a little more sizzle to the proverbial steak, Dragon Force offers 10 distinct troop types, ranging from rank and file infantry to mythical beasts, each with their own strengths, weaknesses, and terrain effects, creating a staggering amount of matchups.  Further, throughout the course of the game, the player can acquire well-over 100 generals, each of whom has three separate special attacks which can impact a battle in a number of different ways.  Pairing the right general with the right troop type can completely subvert otherwise insurmountable odds.

Dragon Force - Session 5 Screenshot 2014-10-15 19-37-33

Each victory earns the player an “award” which can be bestowed upon one of his generals during the administrative phase.  Each award allows its recipient to command ten additional troops.  While awards can be bestowed upon any general in your force, if you fail to promote a general after they win a battle, they may become disgruntled, and defect from your army.  While this rarely has any meaningful impact on gameplay, it does add a nice little wrinkle to the game’s character progression system.

Dragon Force Faust
“‘Oh.’ Oh. That’s all I could say was ‘oh.'”

While it would be generous to call Dragon Force’s plot anything other than “serviceable,” it’s bolstered by a colorful translation from publisher Working Designs.   While most generals only have a handful of lines, the famed translation house managed to fill them with as much personality as possible.[4]  Key story elements are also accompanied by beautiful, hand drawn still frames which go a long way towards giving the story a sense of gravitas.

Dragon Force Reinhart

Dragon Force Superfly
Victor Ireland at work.

It’s difficult to find much fault with Dragon Force’s classic 2D visuals.  On the battlefield, troops and generals are represented by large, expressive sprites.  While the frames of animation for each individual character are somewhat limited, this deficiency is offset by the sheer spectacle of seeing upwards of 200 troops duke it out in real time simultaneously.  Backgrounds are colorful and varied, and massive spell effects leap off the screen with colorful ferocity.

Dragon Force Wyvern

Sound and music are more than competent, if not a little repetitive.  Each monarch has their own personalized overworld theme, and the music which accompanies story sequences and battles is atmospheric and appropriate.  The game’s main theme is an exuberant standout, but a little more variation would have been welcome, particularly given the fact that your average Dragon Force playthrough can last over 20 hours – if you want to try out more than one of the monarchs, you might want to download some podcasts before you begin.

Dragon Force Zanon
Hope you like this character design. You’ll be seeing it a lot.

If Dragon Force has any one significant flaw, it’s that that its average turn length can run a little long.  Gameplay can only be saved during the administrative phase, and with over one hundred generals who can fight multiple battles in a single strategic phase, sometimes you’ll be waiting for hours at a time between save points.  This is slightly mitigated by the fact that you can “suspend” gameplay mid turn if you have a functioning Saturn memory cart – a luxury that is increasingly short supply in this day and age.

Dragon Force is a true Saturn classic; a game that really showcases the console’s strengths as a 2D workhorse.  It feels like it simply could not have been done on the PSX or N64.  At the time, it was all you could have asked for in a platform exclusive, and its gameplay is still compelling  today.  If you’ve got the means to play it, I strongly suggest that you do.

[1] Not exactly.  There is a sequel that has yet to receive an English translation, official or otherwise.

[2] Amazingly, most of the people of Legendra seem to have forgotten all of this relatively recent history by the time the game begins.

[3] The map of Legendra is not unlike a board game, and the player’s armies are the pieces.  While the pieces move in real time, they can only move along pre-defined routes on the map.

[4] One should note that this might be considered a negative, depending on your general feelings regarding Victor Ireland’s sense of humor.

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