Dynamite Headdy's Horrors

Dynamite Headdy has a secure yet easily sidelined role in Treasure’s catalog. It’s not unfairly maligned like Advance Guardian Heroes or Light Crusader, and it’s not unfairly obscure like Bangai-O Missile Fury or Rakugaki Showtime. It’s well-liked but simply just not discussed as often as Gunstar Heroes, Radiant Silvergun, and other classics that defined Treasure’s reputation as masters of the action game. 

Like all Treasure games, Dynamite Headdy deserves more mainstream attention. This website is as far from the mainstream as one can go, but I'll still look at one weird minor moment from the game.

One could call Dynamite Headdy a standout of the Sega Genesis, but among side-scrollers of any period or console it’s spectacular: a surreal, theatrical frolic through a world of sentient marionettes and other toys, starring a neckless hero who tosses his noggin around. It’s packed with enough colorful vistas, clever stages, novel power-ups, and memorable boss battles to make it a great platformer, though that may apply more to the Japanese version. The American release excises almost all of the dialogue and makes everything both harder and more tedious, but even then it’s a good time. 

All is not lighthearted and wondrous within Dynamite Headdy’s world, though. There are some typical Treasure jabs of dark humor, of course, but the opening of stage 4-1 gets surprisingly gruesome.

Halfway through the level Headdy encounters a large and helpfully labeled drainpipe jutting up from the ground. Small spherical creatures jump out of it; they’re smiling little things called Happy Campers (or Browny Bon-Bons) and they resemble pleasant Pac-Man characters or perhaps South Park Canadians. They don’t damage Headdy, apparently wishing him no harm.

There are large spikes near the pipe, and Headdy must proceed in the level by pecking at the Happy Campers and impaling them there like the prey of a shrike. The Campers go limp and turn blue once speared, and only after Headdy’s filled the spike with their corpses does he have enough of a platform to jump upon and move forward. 

Cute video games have spread cheerful patinas over somewhat grim elements since before Mario even stomped his first Goomba, but this little encounter from Dynamite Headdy ventures past such minor pangs of conscience. Most of the enemies that Headdy butts out of his way stay toylike in their mortality: even if they explode to pieces, you never have to see their lifeless forms hanging in midair. It’s not as horrifying as, oh, the wind-up donkey dismemberment scene from The Mouse and His Child, yet it’s still an odd and unsettling display in a game that’s mostly charming and reassuringly cartoonish. 

In fact, it makes me re-examine Headdy himself. He’s an interesting design, a Fraggle-faced creature who resembles at various points a bird, a turtle, or a misshapen humanoid like Graggle Simpson. His default pose has him glaring out in determination or annoyance, commiserating with the player as they face a giant porcelain-doll robot or a level of bizarre cows and countryside. 

Yet after watching him craft a morbid shish kabob of joyful, innocuous creatures, I see a definite look of menace in the allegedly heroic Headdy.

He knew it was wrong.

He did it anyway.

And he’ll do it all again the next time you play. 

Well, at least Dynamite Headdy has a level-select code, so you can skip that stage, the carnage within it, and the resulting uncomfortable realizations about Headdy’s true nature.

Important Freeon-Leon News

This coming month looks to be a busy one for nerds of my stripe, what with Unicorn Overlord, Princess Peach: Showtime!, a new Contra, and the bulk of Final Fantasy VII Rebirth looming over all. Yet the most important release is Ufouria: The Saga 2, in my opinion. That’s because it brings back Freeon-Leon. 

I discussed the first Ufouria: The Saga and its enduring appeal in my previous post. It’s cute, complex, cleverly designed, and largely unweathered by several decades of advances in video games. My favorite part of it is Freeon-Leon, the orange dinosaur hero who trots around with an expression of perpetual astoundment. 

I especially like it when, instead of ducking in a traditional manner, Freeon-Leon flops on his back and stares upwards, as though comprehending the weight of all existence. And then, realizing the necessity of enduring the day as it stands, he scoots along the ground. 

Freeon-Leon was crafted for the Western release of Ufouria, however. The Japanese version has a cat-suited girl named O-Chan instead, and Sunsoft carried her over to the Hebereke series that grew out of Ufouria (and seldom saw any releases outside of Japan). When Ufouria: The Saga 2 rolled around, it seemed to forget all about Freeon-Leon as well as Bop-Louie, the snowman-like revamp of series protagonist Hebe. 

Well, Sunsoft didn’t forget! Ufouria 2 has Hebe and O-Chan as playable characters, but you’ll see both Bop-Louie and Freeon-Leon on rare occasions. At the end of each stage is a Bobodori bird that flies the heroes back home, and that return trip occasionally shows Freeon-Leon or Bop-Louie instead of O-Chan or Hebe. 

This appears to be the limit of their cameos, as even after buying all of the game’s items I can’t find a way to unlock them as playable characters. Making them mere alternate skins for the existing cast might even mess with the game’s dialogue. O-Chan seems a little more braggadocious than Freeon-Leon’s boggled stare would imply, though Bop-Louie likely could share a lot of Hebe’s lines. I naturally would prefer that they be entirely separate characters, fitting with the game’s self-aware sense of humor. 

I will continue my investigation, but even this small cameo is a wonderful surprise. It’s also a good example of Ufouria 2’s winning attention to detail and heritage. I praised all of that in my review, and I really hope that the game doesn’t get buried under the weight of more prominent titles this year. Sunsoft is planning an enhanced reissue of the original Hebereke as well, so there’s another chance for a Ufouria re-release and more of Freeon-Leon.

Ufouria: Bring Back Freeon-Leon

A look through this site reveals that I enjoy going on and on about minor concerns. Yet I assure you that this entry involves no trivial complaints over logos or labels or Zed Blade. This is serious. I’m here to talk about the upcoming Ufouria: The Saga 2 and how it seems to ignore my favorite part of the original game.

Sunsoft’s Ufouria: The Saga is a delight from the last years of the NES empire. It’s a sprawling adventure with four payable characters, solid side-scrolling mechanics, and a vast world to explore in backtracking Metroid fashion. Propelled by charming graphics and one of those marvelous Naoki Kadoka soundtracks, it’s altogether enjoyable even in the face of modern games that expertly evoke NES aesthetics and offer larger quests. It even accomplishes a rare feat for a maze-driven game: losing dumps you back at the very beginning, but thanks to Ufouria’s breezy pace and clever layout, I never really minded that setback. 

Like a lot of impressive late-period NES games, Ufouria wasn’t justly appreciated in its time. It was released in Japan and Europe with little traction, and the North American version was canceled outright (though the Wii’s Virtual Console brought it there in 2010). In Japan the characters continued on in their Hebereke series, though this was primarily in puzzle and sports titles, never returning to the adventurous tones of Ufouria.

Ufouria stars four goofy creatures in a quest to escape a strange alien world, including the protagonist Bop-Louie, the sure-footed Freeon-Leon*, the spectral Shades, and the aquatic Gil. As was frequently the case in this era, changes were made to the original Japanese game’s cast. Shades and Gil merely had their names changed (from Sukezaemon and Jennifer, amusingly enough) but Bop-Louie and Freeon-Leon also look different from their Hebereke counterparts. Hebe is a penguin while Bop-Louie is an alien-eyed snowman. O-Chan appears to be a person in a cat suit, but Freeon-Leon is a big-eyed dinosaur with a single horn.

Freeon-Leon instantly became my favorite of the bunch. In NES games with regional changes I often lean toward the Japanese releases and their cuter designs, but that’s not the case with Ufouria. For one thing, I like Bop-Louie’s unique extraterrestrial Frosty design over Hebe’s precious but fairly pedestrian penguin form. 

And while there’s nothing wrong with O-Chan, I find Freeon-Leon just about perfect. I love how he waddles around with an expression of utterly stupefied wonder. I love how the character selection screen has him making a panicked faced when you select him. And I love how his look of neutral awe changes to a confident smirk when he stomps enemies or a determined glare when he swims across a watery surface.

This brings me to Ufouria 2, Sunsoft’s upcoming sequel to the original game. Its plush-toy look is enticing and the gameplay appears to expand a good deal on its predecessor’s sound ground, but everything shown of it features the original Hebereke characters. There’s no beady-eyed Bop Louie and, worse yet, no unidinosaur Freeon-Leon. Like its Sunsoft contemporary Mr. Gimmick, Ufouria has characters clearly designed for more than just games. They were potential mascots for company logos, cameos, and prize crane machines. It’s a shame that any of them should be ignored.

Ufouria has perhaps only a cult following outside of Japan, of course, and there’s a much greater history to the Hebereke series. Yet I’ll miss Freeon-Leon. I’m not suggesting that Sunsoft delay the game to add optional characters for the sake of just one nutty Freeon-Leon fan, but perhaps we’d see some DLC if, say, several thousand Freeon-Leon fans took up the cause. That’s a hint. 

To turn this more realistic, I hope that Ufouria 2 will include the original game as a bonus in both its Japanese and European/American iterations. With the Wii U and 3DS shops closed to new purchases, there’s no place for newcomers to legally acquire the first Ufouria right now. I think it’s terribly unfair to deny modern civilization easy and honorable access to Freeon-Leon and all he embodies. 

*Ufouria’s in-game text spells his name “Freeon-Leeon” when he’s introduced, but the manual spells it “Freeon-Leon” and that seems to be the more popular interpretation anyway.

Vegas Dream, Analyzed

I mentioned my fascination with casino games a while ago. While they’re often cast aside as cheap distractions, many gambling-themed titles hide cool little details and charming splashes of character beneath their typical spreads of blackjack and poker. At the time I discussed Casino Kid and Casino Games, and yet I think my favorite overall might be Vegas Dream for the NES. 

At a glance Vegas Dream is a respectable yet unadventurous casino crawl from HAL Laboratory, the creators of Lolo, Trax, and, in good time, the Kirby series. You’ll enter your name as a Mr. or Ms. and then gamble away your money at blackjack, keno, the roulette wheel, or a slot machine. It’s what happens in between that makes Vegas Dream a delight.

As you play you’re interrupted by all sorts of casino-goers: waitstaff, fellow gamblers, fast-talking weirdos, hard-luck cases, potential dates, drinking buddies, insider traders, and more. Each of them has a little story to tell and a little wager for you to make. Is that tipster letting you in on a hot stock deal, or is it a dud? Does that young woman really have a sick mother whose illness has led the family to sell a valuable watch, or is it all a scam? Will that cocktail waitress swipe your wallet when she spills a drink on your coat and takes it away for cleaning, or will she be honest and let the casino comp you a few bucks for the trouble? Will that phone call be from a lawyer telling you about a big inheritance, or will you trip on the way to answering it and get stuck with a huge hospital bill?

Not every meeting is as simple as a coin flip. Strangers challenge you to gambling duels, and a reoccurring Ms. Sophie or Mr. James will go on just a few dates with you before proposing marriage. And then you’ll find out if it’s true love, with a nice wedding gift from the casino, or if you’re just another victim of the nationwide epidemic of marriage fraud.

It all livens up the straightforward tone and repetition of Vegas Dream’s casino diversions and soundtrack. The random encounters also repeat themselves, of course, but each time it’s a toss up as to whether you’ll profit or lose money. Seeing the same people over and over is amusing, since there’s no limit on how often you’ll meet any given character. 

Nor is there a rule against you marrying Sophie or James as many times as they propose, as though you’re caught in a bizarre and troubled relationship with them, never knowing if this time they’ll wed you in earnest or just steal your cash. And it all goes on while the same bartender looks on grimly, having seen this depressing charade so many times before. At least the HAL Palace is only too happy to give you money for the publicity over and over. 

The amount you might lose also seems to stay consistent no matter how much cash you have, so a duplicitous paramour might go through the trouble of marrying you and your $381,900 casino account just to steal two hundred bucks. It’s also nice that many of these events make the Las Vegas News, which apparently airs a nightly feature chronicling the windfalls and embarrassments of one particular casino patron.

Vegas Dream looks fairly simple in its routine attractions, but HAL put a surprising amount of work into the clientele. While they might not impress by modern standards, those familiar with the restrictions of NES-era graphics might note the small touches, such as each dancer in a show at the hotel (where you might win a prize or get injured) having a different face. Even the smaller portraits are appealing, and they mix anime stylings with ‘80s fashion and the occasional celebrity lookalike.

HAL put the same ideas to work in Vegas Stakes for the Game Boy and Super NES. You’ll see more locations, enjoy more casino games, and bring a friend along (or several in the Super NES title), but again you’ll be accosted by gamblers, hustlers, crooks, stockbrokers, racing insiders, unfortunates, and weirdos.

Both versions of Vegas Stakes are more elaborate and refined games than Vegas Dream, and yet there’s something absent. Even with the sequels' more animated characters, I prefer the cartoonish look of the Vegas Dream cast to the more realistic style of Vegas Stakes. Nor do these follow-ups seem to have as many cutaways or as much newscaster narration as Vegas Dream. And after hours of playing Vegas Stakes, I haven’t run into anyone trying to marry me. 

One more good thing about Vegas Dream and Vegas Stakes: they’re cheap. All of them. Collectors will grumble about the ever-rising prices of old video games, and they’ll be right most of the time, but for under ten bucks you can nab Vegas Dream or one of its successors. That’s a steal for such an unexpectedly entertaining title from the lesser-known NES ranks. It’s also strangely fitting for a game that encourages you to take risks with your money.

Five Notable Unused Enemies

I don’t hesitate to recommend The Cutting Room Floor for many purposes, from in-depth research to the casual killing of an hour or two. The site details all manner of things deleted or changed in video games, with particular emphasis on localization choices or unused material still lurking in the code. That cut content might be entire stages, snippets of extraneous text, background graphics replaced in the final, or perhaps enemies that were excised for one reason or another. 

It's those fully designed yet never-seen foes that often intrigue me the most. It seems a little unfair, after all: a complete and finished opponent, ready to take its place alongside legions of other enemy ships or entirely too cute woodland creatures, was denied even a brief appearance. Older games sometimes wanted for variety in enemies, and any new threat would be a challenge and a novelty. 

With that in mind, here’s a rundown of five intriguing unused enemies from the TCRF files. 

Monster Party is a relentlessly weird and fascinating creation, a side-scroller that plunges a baseball-playing kid named Mark into a hellish world of bizarre monsters. The final game has no shortage of oddities, with the first stage alone featuring human-faced dogs and corpse legs kicking out of the ground, but earlier versions of the game were even more gruesome and daring. The original title screen oozed blood everywhere, and most of the bosses were direct parodies of classic horror and science fiction like Planet of the Apes and The Thing. It was perhaps a little too much. Most of the game’s blatant homages were changed for the Western release, and Monster Party never even came out in Japan (perhaps due to the media frenzy around a serial killer). A few enemies that went unutilized for less obvious reasons.

My favorite is this wolf in a racecar. There’s nothing nightmarish or legally objectionable about him (or her) just wearing shades and speeding around with a grimly businesslike expression. It’s easy to see this thing zipping back and forth in just about any Monster Party stage, waiting to be dodged or dispatched with some whacks of Mark’s bat—or lasers fired from the form Mark takes when he fuses with his otherworldly bird-dragon ally Bert. I told you that Monster Party was weird. 

Every bit of Monster Party, including its clumsy controls, nicely evokes the sort of awkward demi-nightmare a kid might have after an evening of junk food and horror flicks, and the wolfish racer falls into that dreamlike insecurity. It’s not scary or grotesque. It’s just a wolf in a racecar, and you have no idea why it’s there.

Perhaps racer wolf here was cut for not being strange enough for Monster Party, but I like him. This wolf deserved a spot in the game and perhaps even a dreadful pun of a name in the manual, like Wolfspeed or Caniner or Wolfgang Amadeus Motorcart. Or just Car Wolf. Like Star Wolf? You know, the Edmond Hamilton novels that inspired a tokusatsu TV series that Sandy Frank released here as Fugitive Alien and Mystery Science Theater 3000 mocked? 

I doubt we’ll see Monster Party revived in any capacity, but it would be a marvel if Bandai decided, against all sense of profit, to restore it with the censored bosses and other material. This would include Car Wolf, of course. I’m sticking with that name. 

Phelios is a pretty good arcade shooter from Namco. It’s also a source of minor irritation. I usually like it when video games play fast and loose with mythology, but I’m always annoyed at Phelios repurposing Artemis, a proud goddess of the hunt, as a suggestively imperiled princess. Really, Namco, couldn’t you just go with Aphrodite or Persephone or maybe one of the many, many actual princesses in Greek myth who needed saving? How about Andromeda, since you’re already playing off Clash of the Titans by having the protagonist Apollo ride Pegasus and everything? The Artemis of ancient myth hung around in the woods, requiring neither men nor rescue, and she’s probably the least appropriate choice for a helpless, chained-up captive woman

Uh, anyway. Phelios has several enemies cut from the final game. The most perplexing is this oddity, which resembles some sort of grape-flavored rotisserie chicken. Perhaps it’s a piece of a larger, unfinished monster, but we can always envision a level where the player faced wave upon wave of flying ill-advised food products.

My favorite absent Phelios creature, however, is a familiar little pillbug that curls up and rolls around. Namco is, of course, not fooling anyone who’s seen Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind. That’s an Ohmu from Hayao Miyazaki’s landmark manga and film. They’re among the most frequently imitated of Miyazaki’s creations, as you’ll see tributes to them in Crystalis, Riot, Ghouls ‘N Ghosts, and plenty of other places. And yes, turning them into any sort of enemy contravenes the whole point of Nausicaa’s story, which was that these giant toxic creatures were benevolent and misunderstood. 

These discount-store Ohmu probably got the axe for some logistical reason, but one can conjecture that some designer realized the thematic impropriety of including them. As to what philosophical violations prompted the purple chicken’s removal, I cannot even guess. 

I was a little unfair to Mega Man 4 when I was a kid. For me it was the moment that the series started to feel formulaic and perhaps even bland. The master robots weren’t as striking as prior lineups, the stages were less memorable, and even the music wasn’t as crisp. Today, though, I can at least appreciate Mega Man 4 for its nice environmental effects and impressively large mid-level bosses.

At least one of those bosses didn’t make the cut. A massive Sphinx originally appeared in the thick of Pharaoh Man’s desert lair, but the final game removed it. Early footage of Mega Man 4 suggests that the Sphinx took up too much of the screen and made things too tough on the player, but it’s absence definitely leaves Pharaoh Man’s stage lacking. And while there's a similar foe in Mega Man V for the Game Boy, it's much smaller.

My favorite deleted enemy from Mega Man 4 isn’t the Sphinx, though. It’s a robot seal presumably intended for Dive Man’s level. The seal’s entire sprite is still in the game’s files, making it easy to see how the critter would have floated on its back and lobbed a spherical bomb at Mega Man.

Robo-Seal was possibly cut because there wasn’t room in Dive Man’s level, which admittedly gets a little crowded. Or was Capcom concerned about the player shooting a seal? Probably not, since Mega Man zaps all sorts of cybernetic animals, but then Nintendo changed the Topi enemies in Ice Climber into yeti for international audiences who might object to anything that smacked of seal hunting. 

Whatever the reason, I count it as a loss that this cute little pinniped was removed. Many enemies in Mega Man 4 are faceless machines, so a googly-eyed Robo-Seal would have added further cartoonish charm—and maybe improved my younger self’s opinion of the game. 

It’s not surprising that Strider has unseen material lurking in its code. The game is a messy experience, though unlike some other awkward Capcom releases (such as those miserable Micronics ports) Strider has the excuse of ambition. It attempts a vibrant action manga in NES form, offering stages that scroll in all directions, large sprites that swamp the screen, and locales all across the globe. That helps make it one of my favorite NES games, truth be told. It’s choppy and jarring but also stylish, far-reaching, complex, and in the end pleasantly depressing.

Strider’s most intriguing unused character is a ninja-like boss who wields fireballs, surrounding himself with them and tossing flames at our protagonist, Hiryu. He’s roughly present in a prototype version of the game, appearing as one of many bosses at the Red Dragon Headquarters. The final game sticks a cyborg samurai there instead.

Admittedly, a boss that wields flames is pretty low on Strider’s selection of oddities, which include a robot shark, a whirling tornado of a swordsman, and giant demon-mutant trees. And they have names like Flash Blade, Kodiak, and Badger. The fire ninja doesn’t even have that. He’s just a fire ninja.

I don’t think the TCRF has a full page for the NES version of Strider, but there’s a nice rundown of all the differences between the prototype and the final game. It’s doubly interesting since Strider was developed in Japan and had its own manga series there, but Capcom released it only in North America. It wasn’t uncommon for games to be refined and expanded in other territories after their American releases (ask me about Trouble Shooter, because I am honor-bound to discuss it at least once a year), so perhaps the fire ninja would have found his way back into the game if Capcom had polished it up for Japan, Europe, or another territory. 

The unused enemies of Splatterhouse are a touch disappointing. It’s a savagely gruesome arcade game, after all, so you might expect the never-used foes to be graphic horrors too hideous or objectionable for public display.

There are indeed some decapitated zombies and seeping ghouls in Splatterhouse’s unseen files, but none of them seems particularly more offensive than the monsters that Rick routinely faces in the actual game. In fact, the most interesting one for me is this simple image of a nun.

This was apparently intended as part of the second stage’s boss battle, in which a poltergeist hurls furniture and other assorted household objects at Rick. One of those items could’ve been a portrait of a nun. Or perhaps a complete VHS collection of The Flying Nun. Presumably there was some irony at work there, but it never made the final cut of Splatterhouse

And I wonder why. Did someone think that involving a nun’s picture in a horror game was potentially offensive—or perhaps just cliché? Like the other entries here, the mystery isn’t so much what was cut as to why these ninja bosses and Miyazaki bugs and determined Car Wolves somehow weren’t good enough to appear in their respective games. Well, they’re good enough for me.

Final Fantasy VI's Jump Scare

October usually brings up spooky things, but I’ll resist any discussion of Silent Hill, Clock Tower, Siren, Resident Evil, Power Piggs of the Dark Age, and other openly frightening games. Instead I’ll talk about the first game that really scared me: Final Fantasy VI

Final Fantasy VI, then known as Final Fantasy III, might have been the last game I played completely fresh. I grabbed it on the day of release back in 1994 and plunged into it before any of my friends had it, before Nintendo Power properly featured it, and well before the Internet could spoil it. Everything that unfolded was new and fascinating—and even unsettling at one point. 

Halfway through the game, the heroes head to an imperial stronghold near the mysterious Sealed Gate. It’s clear they’re being duped by the empire, but I nonetheless awaited the mechanics of the trap. Were the unstable Kefka and the conventionally evil Emperor Gestahl the main villains, or would there be a less human monstrosity behind it all? And what of the renegade general Celes, who’d joined our cause for a while? With many questions in mind, I marched Terra, Locke, and the rest of the misfit revolutionaries into the fortress.  


At first things proceeded as normal: the group entered, everyone noticed that the base was deserted, and Terra seemed almost resigned to the empire’s inevitable machinations. Then it happened. Terra suddenly jumped around the screen like a cave cricket. The other members of the party vanished. Then Terra skipped out of sight completely and the game froze. 

I was stunned. I had seen video games glitch out before. I had witnessed countless NES games with garbled graphics that required a now-inadvisable cartridge-blowing. I knew that computer games would jam if you pulled out the disk at the wrong time. I had even personally kicked an arcade cabinet so hard that the game rebooted. But I had never seen something like this. 

I tried to make sense of it. Maybe it was supposed to happen. Final Fantasy VI’s visual effects went well beyond other RPGs of its day, and Terra’s "Let's get this over with" even hinted that she was planning some revelation. Hours prior she had unexpectedly morphed into a wild-haired Esper and soared across half the world, so bounding all over the place was mundane by comparison. 

I waited for the game to right itself. It stayed frozen. Shock spread through me. The game had broken through no fault of mine. It had stepped outside the boundaries of fiction and violated some unspoken decree of verisimilitude. Perhaps it had even wrecked my save file and destroyed all the hours that I’d put into this quest. Perhaps the actual game cartridge was irredeemably damaged right down to the circuits. For the first time in my life a video game was messing with my head. 

Of course, everything was fine. I reset the game, pulled up my most recent save file, and sent Terra and her compatriots into the fortress and beyond without incident. And yet that strange scene was never far from my mind, and for the rest of the game I half-expected acrobatic chaos and lockups whenever the characters broke into conversation or entered a new region. My faith was shaken. 

I had good cause for that. Final Fantasy VI is littered with notorious and well-documented glitches, including the many odd side effects of Relm’s “Sketch” command. That’s to say nothing of such deliberately unsettling sights as Shadow’s dreams and the final battle’s grotesque Boschean vision. 

Yet nothing in the game rattled me like Terra’s bizarre, game-freezing gymnastics, partly because they seemed unique. Other kids knew all about Relm’s glitches, and everyone who played the game enough would see Shadow’s nightmares. I never met another player who’d encountered a leaping Terra at the imperial fortress. 

Even today I can’t find the glitch listed among Final Fantasy VI’s many known technical hiccups and exploitable programming. And I’ve never been able to recreate Terra’s antics in any subsequent play-through. I might be the only person who ever saw it, and that makes it just a little creepy even today.

NES Games We Hated

I try not to buy physical copies of games these days. It’s a promise easily kept thanks to old games being expensive and new games being just installation discs in otherwise empty cases, but I have a weakness for cheap NES cartridges. 

You can chalk up some of that to the merciless grip that Nintendo held on American children for the latter half of the 1980s, and yet I genuinely appreciate their aesthetics. I like the design of the cartridges, the work of a company intent on differentiating their games from the smaller, simpler plastic casings of the Atari era. I like how the labels are large enough to show the package illustrations well. I like how they look when stacked or arranged on a shelf, how they can tell a story or follow a theme. 


For this latest pile of authentically worn NES cartridges, the theme is “Games That Kids Hated.” 

That’s not to say these games were all that bad. Some were just misunderstood or mistimed. Yet each of them caught some resentment from the young citizens of the NES Empire (AD1985-1991) and I can tell you why. 


Hated By: Kids Expecting A Zelda Game 

Nintendo’s marketers bent over backwards to sell Americans on Dragon Warrior. Nintendo Power carefully explained the mechanics of an RPG and devoted ample magazine space to an extensive guide. Yet it didn’t do the numbers that Nintendo had hoped; Dragon Quest was a monstrous success in Japan, but in America the re-titled Dragon Warrior had enough leftover stock that Nintendo Power gave away the game to subscribers.

And that was bound to disappoint some kids. A free game was a free game, but more than a few Nintendo Power readers jumped on the offer without any idea of what an RPG entailed. They expected something like The Legend of Zelda, with direct combat between the hero and monsters. Dragon Warrior’s menu-driven battles and slower pace could’ve been a good introduction to the genre, but let’s be realistic: a lot of kids probably got bored and gave up after a few slimes drew near. 

Of course, the biggest problem with Nintendo releasing Dragon Warrior was the indirect funding of series composer Koichi Sugiyama’s revisionist history, but that was likely beyond the sphere of American fifth-graders pitching their parents on getting them a magazine subscription and a new game all at once. 


Hated By: Kids Expecting Straightforward Action 

No one has the wrong idea about Metal Gear games today. They’re so rampantly popular that even the casual observer knows about their stealthy approach to action, their long-winded cutscenes, and their issues with women. Things weren’t so clear in the late 1980s, when NES owners had to rely on magazine spreads, print ads, and cover artwork. So it was easy to assume that Metal Gear was a full-bore action game in the bullet-spraying tradition of Contra and Commando.

We didn’t realize that the game emphasizes subterfuge and strategy over pure reflex-driven shooting. We didn't expect that taking a direct action-game approach would get us spotted by guards and offed in short order. And we didn't know that the game starts protagonist Solid Snake with only a pack of cigarettes instead of the massive arsenal pictured in ads for Metal Gear.

Of course, that’s what set the game apart and made it enjoyable: gradually collecting new items and experimenting with them. That was, however, not what many players expected. Kids who just wanted to be Rambo would bounce hard off of Metal Gear—and the actual NES Rambo game too, but that’s another story. 

I saw this first-hand with a neighbor kid who hated Metal Gear so much that he refused to even pop it into his NES so I could see what the game was like. It wasn’t until years later that I checked it out myself and enjoyed it, and even then I had to admit that my younger incarnation would have given up after strategically walking right up to rifle-toting guards and trying to punch them. 


Hated By: Kids Who Played It 

Sheer oversaturation may have doomed The Adventures of Bayou Billy. It had TV commercials, an episode of the Captain N cartoon, ads in comics, a short comic of its own (illustrated by Amanda Conner, even), and ample space in Nintendo Power. And why wouldn’t Konami promote it? It looked like three games in one, as the eponymous Billy battles thugs across side-scrolling stages, driving scenes, and shooting levels that use the NES Zapper.

Yet The Adventures of Bayou Billy was a too-perfect case of an NES game difficult in both design and controls. The side-view stages are brawls similar to Double Dragon, with an awkward jumpkick and without any useful tricks. The driving and shooting stages demand a lot, and there’s nothing to the story beyond Billy rescuing his girlfriend Annabelle from the clutches of a demented swamp gangster.

On that note, The Adventures of Bayou Billy might have drawn resentment from another camp: Concerned Parents of the 1980s who assumed video games were G-rated fare—and who did not approve of Annabelle’s low-cut attire or of Billy exclaiming “OH GOD!” at her abduction in the opening sequence. But they needn’t have worried about kids witnessing further filth, because they’d never get past the first level. 


Hated By: Kids Who Didn’t Have the Manual 

I have a personal vendetta here. The base exchange was the only place to buy American NES games when my family lived in Germany, and their supply was always weird. They’d fill shelves with lower-tier NES releases like The Adventures of Lolo or Defender of the Crown, with only a single copy of Zelda II or some other game people actually wanted. This meant that every kid at school had certain NES games, and Milon’s Secret Castle was one of them. So if, like me, you had a game that everyone wanted to borrow (Mega Man 2, in this case) you got used to kids lending you Milon’s Secret Castle in exchange. 

Some NES games are perfectly playable if you go in cold. Milon’s Secret Castle is not one of them. The game is inscrutable from the start, with no hints as to how you’re meant to scour rooms for hidden items, break walls with Milon’s bubble weapon, and eventually unlock the first boss. The manual sheds a little light on things, but I was left to navigate Milon’s Secret Castle with only my limited intuition. It didn’t help that Milon runs, jumps, fires bubbles, and does just about everything in that slightly awkward manner favored by mid-1980s NES platformers. His castle could stay secret for all I cared.

Milon’s Secret Castle is now a curiosity in the evolution of Metroidvania titles, or “search action” games. Or just “maze games” as I called them back then. We were roughly acquainted with the idea through Metroid, Rygar, and other early NES releases, but Milon’s adventure was threadbare by comparison and still is. My favorite thing about it these days is that, as a Hudson Soft release, it’s contractually obligated to have the Hudson Bee. 


Hated By: Kids Who Wanted Street Fighter II 

It’s 1992. Everyone at school is obsessed with Street Fighter II on the Super NES. And you, for whatever reason, still have just the regular old NES. But what’s this in the rows of clearance-priced NES games at Toys R Us? It’s Street Fighter! Well, it's Street Fighter 2010: The Final Fight, but surely its the same as that Street Fighter game your friends can’t stop playing. And now you can play it too! On your NES!

Street Fighter 2010 was harmless when it appeared in 1990. It’s a futuristic take on the original Street Fighter arcade game: instead of traveling the world, you warp across the galaxy and fight a variety of aliens. It’s an interesting yet very difficult game in Capcom’s NES oeuvre, a little better than Yo Noid and Adventures in the Magic Kingdom but not quite Mega Man 2 or Bionic Commando--or Strider, which I think is still excessively maligned. 

Yet after Street Fighter II arrived and became a pop-culture phenomenon, Street Fighter 2010 was a landmine of disappointment for any kids who didn’t examine the box closely enough or wonder why this particular Street Fighter game was only $9.97 while the Super NES Street Fighter II cost seven times as much. Others would experience this through no fault of their own. They’d ask for Street Fighter II that Christmas and then unwrap Street Fighter 2010 before their beaming, thrifty, and completely unsuspecting parents. 


Hated By: Kids Whose Parents Loved It 

On the subject of parents and the NES, many a child spent the Nintendo Empire’s height wishing that mom or dad liked video games just a little more. Then they wouldn’t complain that you spent so much time playing video games. They’d finally understand and appreciate all the time and effort you sank into beating Golgo 13 or Mickey Mousecapades.

Well, that monkey’s paw curled up when Nintendo released Tetris and no one could avoid it. Parents across the nation would now tie up the NES to play Tetris, cutting down on their kids’ Nintendo time in the most effective way possible. Nintendo’s official version of Tetris didn’t have a two-player mode, either, so you couldn’t even join the game. At least that would change when Dr. Mario arrived next year. 

Your only hope was to somehow convince your parents to get a Game Boy, which came with Tetris and would draw them away from the NES. And then you couldn’t play the Game Boy. Oh well. Maybe they’d make it up to you by renting Milon’s Secret Castle.

My Five Favorite Game Company Logos

Game companies may need a lot of things to survive in the industry, but in my book they need only one thing to be memorable: a good logo. The majority of developers and publishers use professional, clean designs that showcase their name, and that’s just fine for business purposes. Yet I hold special regard for those logos that went beyond the norm and gave us creative little sights to accompany title screens and copyrights. 

Thinking Rabbit’s resume is largely unknown in the West, but it’s an intriguing one. They arguably started the block-shoving puzzle genre with their Sokoban series, known by such delightful alternate titles as Boxxle, Boxyboy, and, best of all, Shove It! They also developed a lot of murder-mystery games for home computers, plus the Super Famicom RPG Maten Densetsu: Senritsu no Ooparts. Outside of Japan, their most intriguing release might be 8 Eyes, an NES action-adventure about a boy and his falcon.

Of course, Thinking Rabbit could have made not a single game and I’ll still adore them just because of their logo: a cuddly lagomorphic blob. It’s a simple but very engaging design, and putting “soft office” next to the rabbit makes it even cuter. I want to pet that rabbit. I want to protect that rabbit from all predators. I want to build that rabbit a safe enclosure and find it a friend, because rabbits do well in pairs. I want to get that rabbit regular checkups. I want to feed that rabbit a heathy diet of hay with the occasional banana snippet as a treat. I want plush toys and keychains and other needless merchandise featuring this rabbit. And of course I want a video game about that thoughtful rabbit.

Sorry about that. Such is the power of a good logo. It certainly made me want to read this interview that covers Thinking Rabbit’s history creative processes. Most interestingly, it mentions that company founder Hiroyuki Imabayashi considered a spin-off label called Hopping Rabbit. I cannot begin to imagine how precious its logo might have been. 

I am a Treasure fan. No, I’m not going to dilute that statement by adding “except for Buster’s Bad Dream” or “Stretch Panic excepted” or some other nonsense. Even Treasure’s lesser games are interesting and enjoyable in some way, and they’re still so far from the mainstream that raving to excess about them is entirely acceptable. The only thing about Treasure that I don’t like? They stopped making new games. 

Treasure crafted such extraordinary and acclaimed titles as Radiant Silvergun, Guardian Heroes, and Bangai-O, and a deeper look into their work reveals many lesser-known and fascinating finds, from the odd but inventive Light Crusader to the widely, greatly, and relentlessly misunderstood gem that is Advance Guardian Heroes. Their catalog has its ups and downs, but one can reasonably say that Treasure is one of history’s finest small-scale game developers. Go on, say it. You’ll either score points with the Treasure faithful or annoy people who possibly deserve it.

Naturally, I like Treasure’s original logo. It’s three rhombi and two triangles, all artfully arranged and even animated in many of their earlier games. It's immediately striking yet built with care, as Treasure games so often are.

Treasure changed their logo to a more generic fiery background, adding “video games” to apparently prevent confusion with companies like Treasure Financial or Treasure Beach Supplies. Understandable, but now that Treasure has seemingly receded to founder Masato Maegawa overseeing ports of a cherished older title or two, it just makes you long for the days of the purple box.

Then again, "Treasure Video Games" forms both a logo and good advice, especially when it comes to Treasure's stuff. Hold tight to that Astro Boy title for the Game Boy Advance, because at the very least it'll be worth some money. 

Here’s another developer I like: Quest, makers of the fantastic and often depressing Ogre Battle and Tactics Ogre series. Quest was the starting ground for Ogre-verse creator Yasumi Matsuno, who’d later give us Final Fantasy Tactics, Vagrant Story, and a lot of Final Fantasy XII—and who, I firmly maintain, will one day return to the big leagues and make the best video games the world has ever seen. Woe to all disbelievers. 

Quest was more than just Matsuno, of course. Their older titles, Magical Chase and Conquest of the Crystal Palace among them, merit more than just a glance, and even without Matsuno’s direct oversight Quest crafted the excellent Ogre Battle 64 and Tactics Ogre: The Knight of Lodis.

Quest’s later logo is just fine, with its Q cleverly formed by three circles. Yet it's the earlier logo that catches the eye by having three Qs instead of just one. Was it just a design flourish, or do those letters stand for something? I’d guess “Queen Quote Quotient” considering Matsuno's musical tastes. The first two Ogre games are subtitled “The March of the Black Queen” and “Let Us Cling Together,” after all.

Want to make your game company stand out? Give it a unique logo and a very odd name. That’s what Y’sK did when founder Hozumi Yoshida got together with some other former Data East staffers around 2003. Y’sK, apparently pronounced “Wees-kay” had a short career doing programming and graphical support alongside other developers for Growlanser and Kenka Banchou titles, and the company appears not to have lasted the decade.

Y’sK had a great logo, though. A green dog in a diving pose is a bold design choice, and I really like how the animal’s ear forms part of the Y. Maybe it doesn’t make for the most typographically correct Y, but I applaud Y’sK all the same. I suppose that the only downside is a possible association with the Sega Genesis game Greendog, but no one remembers Greendog.

A number of Y’sK employees went on to work at a developer called Zex, which had a hand in some Phantasy Star and Ace Attorney games. And they have a logo that looks like a 1980s detergent brand, so I think they’re doing all right for themselves. 

Ah, Wolfteam, makers of El Viento, Arcus Odyssey, Granada, Final Zone, and loads of other games that magnificently evoked the aesthetics of late 1980s anime OVAs. They were a workhorse of a developer, and between them and their parent company Telenet they helped make the Sega Genesis and PC Engine a bastion of slick cartoon stylings and solid enough action games.

Wolfteam’s most frequently used logo doesn’t really embody that. It’s just a lightning bolt and the company name, with occasionally a CD-based voice saying “game creative staff.” Where are the hulking combat mechs? Where are the laser-spewing spaceships? Where are the plucky Peruvian heroines fighting Cthulhu spawn and hang-gliding 1920s gangsters while riding a dolphin? Man, El Viento is great.

I find the earlier Wolfteam logo more notable and puzzling. It could be two thunderbolt slashes, similar to the red-and-gray symbol, but it also looks like two heavily distorted Ws or perhaps the profiles of large-crested birds. The more compact variant seen in some games even looks like a robot head similar to the rabbit-eared mechs of Patlabor. Perhaps such confusion was Wolfteam’s reason for changing it. Either way, it’s no Thinking Rabbit.

Little Things: Archon

I wonder why Archon: The Light and the Dark wasn’t a bigger deal. It was a success on home computers in the mid-1980s, of course, but it invited much more with its version of fantasy combat chess. Perhaps the less-esteemed sequel was just that disappointing. Or perhaps the video game market wasn’t yet a place where every modest hit might become action figures, tie-in novels, syndicated cartoons, beach towels, or the board games that Archon in a sense already was.

Archon remains interesting no matter its limited reputation. It’s a chess playfield broadened considerably: the two sides vie to occupy power points, half the squares shift auras with each turn to favor the light or the dark, and the non-pawn pieces all have unique attacks and gimmicks. Most importantly, confrontations are decided by two characters battling to the death in an arena whenever they meet on the same square. It beats the staid parameters and unfounded aggrandizement of traditional chess, and I maintain that society would only improve if Deep Blue and similar computers devoted themselves to besting human opponents at Archon

The characters in Archon’s world also help. They don’t have names, but they capture traditional fantasy icons in their simple sprites and sounds: the amorphous shapeshifters, the galloping unicorns, the slinking basilisks, the soaring Valkyries, and the exploding, re-forming phoenixes. They’re led by a wizard on the light side and a sorceress on the dark one. While I wouldn’t immediately ascribe that design choice to sexism, I note that Archon II cast its new factions under the Master of Order and the Mistress of Chaos.

I played Archon in various incarnations from the Commodore 64 onward, but my favorite version is for the NES. And it’s not because of the lingering blind loyalty of a Nintendo-fed childhood. It’s because of the goblins. 

The goblins are the pawns of the darkness, mere minions with little attack range and little value beyond occupying power points. They’re rendered as squat, pointy-eared gremlins wielding clubs, and in the Commodore 64 version their cudgels look a little like giant hotdogs. In the NES port, however, the spritework makes the goblins look like they’re holding mirrors.

That’s what I see, anyway. These goblins, disposable grunts in this brutal war between good and evil, are hefting large hand mirrors and primping themselves before they march out into the gruesome fray. It makes the whole battle just a little more amusing, as though the front lines of the host of darkness are all just Vanity Smurf.

Archon wasn’t entirely forgotten. It had some remakes over the years, and it was no doubt an influence on a lot of later games that mixed strategy and arena dueling (such as The Unholy War). Its latest revival was planned for the disastrous Intellivision Amico, though it’s likely as doomed as the rest of the console. I can't even find screenshots of this alleged new Archon, and so I may never know what sort of household objects the goblins might wield this time around.