Lufia and the Fortress of Doom's Grand Opening

I did not own Lufia and the Fortress of Doom as a kid, but my cousins did. Each summer they’d bring it along when the family gathered at grandma’s house, and each summer I’d play the first few hours of the game. By the next summer my save file would be gone, long since overwritten by my cousins or one of their friends. I didn’t mind, because this meant that I got to play the game’s introduction all over again.

In Lufia and the Fortress of Doom, Neverland Company and writer/director Masahide Miyata made a bold move for a Super NES RPG from 1993: they opened with its final battle—or a final battle, at least.



It begins with an ominous crawl across a floating isle, the home of four godlike beings of destruction called Sinistrals. Four brave mortals, led by a warrior named Maxim, rise to face this threat, and we’re taken right to their climactic journey through the isle. Tales of ancient heroes are very common in a fantasy RPG, but instead of simply telling us how things went, Lufia and the Fortress of Doom lets us play it out entirely.



We find Maxim and his allies already at the heart of the Sinistrals' inner sanctum. With finely tense music and eerily vacant halls, the castle evokes a final stage so well a casual viewer might glance and assume that this is, in fact, the big finale of a 40-hour RPG and not an opening in media res. 

As befitting a final dungeon, heroes Maxim, Selan, Artea, and Guy are all high in levels and outfitted with powerful weapons and magic, and it’s hard for them to lose against the monsters that pop up throughout the fortress. You might notice, however, that those monsters pop up very often. Remember that.

The Sinistrals await at the center of this citadel, and Maxim’s party tackles all four of them. Each is a screen-filling creature that’s a little harder to beat than the grunt-level monsters, though you’d have to make a real effort for them to defeat you. Aside from that, however, they feel like end bosses. They even disintegrate dramatically, just like a proper chief villain should.

Lost Anime: Metal Hazard Mugen

The anime industry was in chaos around 2007.  American publishers were ailing after years of releasing too many mediocre series in outdated methods, stores were deluged with unwanted DVDs, and Japanese licensors still sought exorbitant licensing fees for those same mediocrities. It’s no surprise that some anime projects vanished entirely in this bubble of fragile companies and unsustainable ideas. One of them was Metal Hazard Mugen, a series that made the remarkable move of telling people to stay away from it. 

 


That’s the first impression the Metal Hazard Mugen flyer gives us, anyway, with its taglines of “Let Me Alone!” and “Don’t pry into our affairs!” At the Tokyo Anime Fair of 2007, Wedge Holdings promoted Mugen along with the CGI action flick Cat Blue Dynamite and a cuddly kids show called Kuma3. Cat Blue Dynamite came out online while Kuma3 apparently aired on Japanese TV, but Metal Hazard Mugen never surfaced. 

Reading the rest of the sell-sheet reveals that the taglines aren’t reverse psychology as much as they're trying to evoke the show’s bitter young hero and insular alien planet. Metal Hazard Mugen unfolds on a distant world where humans are the unwanted colonizers, and a mercenary and wealthy-family scion named Jin “Sigma” Katsuragi has discovered a talent for harmonizing with mecha. One of these, the Mugen X-OE, is a particularly powerful transforming car-robot, and it seems to be very, very important that its engine doesn’t stall, lest the pilot lose his raison d'etre. Maybe he's just late for work. 

The awkward text raises a number of questions. We’re told that humankind’s “remembrance of our homeland, Planet Earth, is lost” a mere paragraph before we learn how our protagonist ranked in an intelligence test back on that supposedly lost Earth. Sentences cut off at random, leaving us to ponder unexplained terms like “Delft Apparition” and “MM interface.” It’s almost confusing enough to be a Yoshiyuki Tomino series.  



Beyond the odd phrasing, though, Metal Hazard Mugen looks to be the most generic anime series you could find in 2007. It presents a hodgepodge of ugly character designs, posed statically around equally stiff GC images of robot combat and linked by unmemorable jargon. There’s little to sell the series apart from a name or two in the credits: Toru Nozaki had some pull from scripting or co-creating Sunrise shows like Argento Soma, Flag, and Gasaraki, and Junichi “Beecraft” Akutsu is an experienced Gundam designer. It's strange that there’s no director listed, but perhaps the project was just that early.

Did Metal Hazard Mugen have any potential? It’s possible that Nozaki might have thrown a curveball or two, as he did with Garasaki’s drift into spiritualism and anti-American politics, and the Mugen robot itself, presumably a Beecraft design, isn’t a bad take on a transforming motorbike mecha. And, uh…well, the blond, blue-clad character’s design isn’t completely awful.  

The greatest flattery for Metal Hazard Mugen is that it doesn’t look that much worse than some of the drivel that actually made it to the market. At this point anime studios had cranked out drab mecha and science fiction series from Cybuster to Pilot Candidate to Starship Operators to Innocent Venus, and American publishers were still buying them. One can’t blame Wedge Holdings for thinking that Metal Hazard Mugen deserved to clog up a shelf at Suncoast with volumes two, three, and five of its overpriced DVD releases.  



Yet there was no publisher to rescue Metal Hazard Mugen. As far as I can tell, it never aired, and I can’t even find a trailer for it. It’s even hard to find evidence that it was ever announced; the most prominent news comes from a Turkish site’s snippet about Wedge Holdings announcing the series along with Kuma3 and Velvet Under World. The latter was a vanity project from actor Takehito Koyasu that only got as far as a trailer and some music albums. I’m not sure if Metal Hazard Mugen even reached that stage.  

It’s possible that some pilot footage was cobbled together for the lone screenshot that survives online, but I doubt things went beyond that. Animation tends to cost more to produce than a live-action show, and no one would bankroll all of Metal Hazard Mugen’s 26 planned episodes without some guaranteed TV deal. Even so, I can’t fully dismiss the possibility that Metal Hazard Mugen was completed and aired on some obscure satellite station, possibly with full English voicework. Strangers discoveries have arisen among obscure anime.  

Perhaps Metal Hazard Mugen didn't fail simply on its own merits. If Radix Planning is the same company as Radix Ace Entertainment, they went out of business in 2006. Wedge Holdings still exists, but they’ve apparently given up on getting a piece of the anime market. I'm sure they'll love it if everybody pesters them about a certain anime series canceled almost fifteen years ago.  

Metal Hazard Mugen stirs no interest today. No one will mourn it as they might Five Killers or some other promising canceled anime of the bubble era, and that’s a fitting legacy. Mugen presents nothing but a mediocre front, and in doing that it embodies everything forgettable about the global anime boom. But hey, it was thoughtful enough to tell us that it just wanted to be left alone.  

Review: GG Aleste 3

Compile’s Aleste series stayed silent for much too long. It includes some of the best shooters ever made, but it drifted away in the 1990s thanks to Puyo Puyo and Compile's general fracturing. It wasn’t until recently that M2, masters of reviving old games, got the rights to Aleste and announced the all-new Aleste Branch as well as a Switch and PlayStation 4 collection of four older Alestes from the Sega Master System and Game Gear. And then M2 gave the Aleste Collection a brand new game with GG Aleste 3: Last Messiah, designed as an actual Game Gear title running on precise system specs. Because M2 is insane. 

In fact, GG Aleste 3 seems engineered to make you think you’re also a little insane. From the moment it shows Luna Waizen (or Lluna Wizn, as the manual has it) suiting up and joining the proud family of Aleste spacefighter pilots, everything about GG Aleste 3 is calibrated to the Game Gear’s pixels and display size. It gnaws at your sense of time and leads you to believe for a moment that the year is 1994 and you’ve imported a title for the recently obsolete Game Gear just because of a brief, enthusiastic review in the back pages of Diehard GameFan or Sega Power. That’s how faithful M2 was in creating a new Compile shooter.



But what makes a Compile shooter, anyway? For starters, it ignores a lot of genre standards. The 2-D shooter was largely a creature of arcades back in its day, when the likes of R-Type and Raiden drove sales by making players memorize the way through repeatedly deadly stages. That tendency continues today, where the whole point of most shooters seems to rest not in beating the game, but in replaying it, mastering the scoring system, and learning everything so well you can finish it without using any continues (which are often unlimited and penalty-free). And while there's nothing wrong with that, it’s a shame that this focus on high scores and one-credit exhibition occludes the other ways a shooter can engage us. 

Compile never had that problem. Their shooters were made for home computers and consoles, and so they never had to compromise their design for the sake of getting another quarter in the machine. If typical shooters were sometimes too short and too stingy with their power-ups, Compile’s offerings emerged as lengthy, measured challenges with plenty of space to experiment. 



And that’s what GG Aleste 3 brings back. Luna’s ship has the usual Aleste weapons: a direct laser, a reverse-aimed fireball, a revolving shield, arcing fire bombs, crescent homing shots, and diagonal firing. GG Aleste 3’s arsenal isn’t novel, but it embraces another tradition: an Aleste game never leaves the player without power-ups for long. Red booster ovals and weapon icons drift into the screen every few seconds, letting you enhance your basic shots and switch sub-attacks very easily. Most important of all, grabbing any power-ups makes you immune to any bullets for just a moment.  

Unsung Game Creators: Takeru

Well, this wasn’t the best year for Kid Fenris Dot Com. Besides the same obvious reasons that 2020 sucked for so many people, the site’s hosting collapsed in the spring, and it took a while to move it and rebuild everything. So this was the first year in a long while that I couldn’t even manage one entry per month. 

On the other hand, I at least helped launch a YouTube series with Unsung Game Creators. The second episode’s first half is here, and it looks at the short-lived developer Takeru and their collection of Capcom expats.

 

I’m grateful for any support we have so far. Unsung Game Creators episodes tend to take a while to research and write, and that’s to say nothing of the heavy lifting that Joel does on the videos themselves. YouTube values sheer quantity above all else, so it's a challenge to get noticed even in a niche of people who care about the legacy of Little Samson or the sprite work in Metal Storm.  And there are many more developers to cover, so I hope you'll stick with us!

Jaws: An NES Revenge Revisited

Last month I discussed and possibly even lionized Clockwork Aquario, the adorable arcade action game resurrected over two decades after Westone reluctantly canceled it. I’m glad to see that Strictly Limited Games has made good on their promises of reissuing the game, and they’re offering Clockwork Aquario as a basic Switch or PlayStation 4 release, an elaborate special edition, or an Ultra collector’s edition with every kind of bonus trinket short of a Huck Londo punching puppet.


All of the editions seem to be selling fast. That might not bode well for casual buyers, but it’s comforting to think that so many people care about this lost little arcade adventure from 1993—or at least that the scalpers who make up a good chunk of the limited-edition customer base assume that so many people would care.

Seeing a Westone creation so elaborately revived puts me in mind of another game from the now-defunct developer’s catalog: Jaws.

Jaws for the NES is sometimes labeled Jaws: The Revenge by mistake, and at other times it’s lumped in with some of the worst things on the system. That’s also a mistake. Jaws isn’t a defining moment in Westone history, but under the right circumstances it’s an interesting game.


Publisher LJN played it vague with the movie connection, though the game lands closest to the most recent Jaws: The Revenge. The player sails a small map, going between two ports and spearing sea creatures in random encounters. Jaws looms near all the while, and once you’ve upgraded your power levels and gained a mini-sub, you can damage the giant shark enough to bring about a first-person duel wherein you must spear Jaws with the prow of the boat. That at least is straight from Jaws: The Revenge, though there’s no sign of Mario Van Peebles inexplicably surviving a shark attack, Michael Caine collecting a paycheck, or the creature itself violating all known shark biology by roaring.

In fact, Jaws is more intriguing if you take it as a completely original game. With no storyline or initial directions to introduce things, you’re left to infer that your scuba-outfitted character is an instantaneously loathsome psychopath. 

The Return of Clockwork Aquario

When it came to unreleased video games, Clockwork Aquario was a relentless, blatant, and downright sadistic tease. It went through arcade location tests back in 1993, but developer Westone deemed it unsuitable for the market. So it drifted into the same ether that absorbs most canceled games.

Yet Clockwork Aquario survived. Composer Shinichi Sakamoto and EGG released the soundtrack in 2006, and stories from those who played the game tantalized like UFO sightings. Then company co-founder Ryuichi Nishizawa uncovered the source code, sprites, and design documents, hinting that it might well be possible to restore the entire thing. Clockwork Aquario seemed just on the edge of coming back to life.  

That’s exactly what happened, according to Strictly Limited Games. After a year or two of hints, the German publisher announced Switch and PlayStation 4 releases of a fully restored Clockwork Aquario. It’s due out  next year, and they have screenshots, a website, and some gameplay footage to prove it. I usually don’t embed videos that aren’t mine, but I’m breaking that rule for Clockwork Aquario.  

 

 

What’s that? It’s just twenty seconds of standard side-scroller gameplay? Yes, it is. But there’s more to the game than that. And there’s more to its appeal than a long shadow of makeshift nostalgia.  

 



Clockwork Aquario is the last arcade project from Westone, creators of the immensely charming Wonder Boy and Monster series (which I refuse to even attempt to explain here). Aquario theoretically found the company at its height, landing in between the excellent Wonder Boy in Monster World and Westone’s crowning achievement, Monster World IV.  

 


Even our limited peek at Clockwork Aquario reveals many familiar hooks. It offers three adventurers: Huck Londo, Elle Moon, and a rotund robot named Gush. Their standard hop-and-hit attacks are enhanced when they throw around stunned enemies—and even each other in the two-player mode. It wasn’t the first game to try out such a concept even in 1993, but it opens up all sorts of techniques. And it possibly led to the pet-tossing play mechanics of Monster World IV.  

The little details have already won me over. I like the way the characters take damage by subtly changing appearance (as Elle does in the video) and the way they turn into strangely calm angels upon defeat. I even like the little character portraits in the background of the player-select screen. Just look at them.

Introducing Unsung Game Creators

I always like unearthing obscure things here. I don’t think I’m trying to show off to anyone; that would require this site to have readers. It’s more that I enjoy learning new things, and I feel the need to validate that by writing about them. 

 

That’s the impetus behind Unsung Game Creators, a new YouTube series from me and my friend Joel (who doesn’t have a site). It’s all about lesser-known developers and the threads running through their games, and I hope that being on YouTube will get it some attention. Yes, it’s a subject with limited appeal, but amid those ten thousand other video channels, you’re not going to stand out with a profanity-laced playthrough of the Captain Planet NES game. 

 

 

So have a look at the first episode of Unsung Game Creators, which covers the Capcom-esque creations of Ukiyotei. We have many more installments planned, and everyone's free to suggest a subject or two! Not even that Captain Planet game is off the table.

Valkyrie Anatomia: A Post-Mortem

Valkyrie Profile sequels have terrible luck. Consider Valkyrie Profile 2: Silmeria, an inventive RPG promptly overshadowed by bigger RPG names when it poked its head up back in 2006. Consider Valkyrie Profile: Covenant of the Plume, a beautifully depressing strategy-RPG that appeared on the Nintendo DS precisely when the platform had strategy-RPGs to spare. And in this age of rampant cheap and short-lived games for phones and tablets, Valkyrie Profile’s only real presence is a cheap and short-lived game for…well, you get the idea.



Not that Valkyrie Anatomia: The Origin did badly for itself. Launched in 2016, it lasted some four years, and the English language release from Wonder Planet endured for over a year before Square Enix announced the worldwide shutdown of the game, effective August 31. For a mobile title based on an RPG series with a strictly cult following, that’s a firm success.

But how did Anatomia rank beside other Valkyrie Profiles? It makes no secret that it’s a prequel, with a confused and reserved (and unsatisfactorily armored) Lenneth Valkyrie called into the service of an Odin decidedly young and still sporting both of his eyes. Flanked by shapeshifting raven-kids Huginn and Muginn, Lenneth stalks the mortal realm in search of brave and gifted warriors to join Odin’s Einherjar ranks upon death. At least that final bit is easy to understand; it’s what valkyries do, you know.



Valkyrie Profile 2 messed around with alternate dimensions and secret identities, and Anatomia supercharges the whole concept. The overlying tale flits from one mysterious character and hidden agenda to another, mixing Norse myth with its own concepts and even bringing out the Rhinemaidens that Wagner possibly invented. Old worlds die, new ones are born, and it all vaguely connects to the Valkyrie Profile games we’ve seen before.

The central storyline rings the familiar chime of a war between gods and humans, though the RPG clich├ęs is inverted: here the gods are sympathetic and distant while the humans who challenge are corrupt and petty. It all leads to a climax with a few novel twists among the predictable ones, but the first chapter trails off to made room for a second chapter—one that the writers scrambled to finish in the game's final month. The dialogue also does the story few favors; it’s adequate most of the time, but the typos and bland turns of phrase hardly suit a game about Norse mythology and celestial apocalypse.



At least the game delivers on the valkyrie front. Lenneth alone has several alternate forms, and she and her sisters are joined by new celestial warriors with each story arc. By the end I almost expected every character, human or otherwise, to have some valkyrie variant, each available only through a random pull with a .0005 percent chance of giving you anything good. This is a mobile game, after all.

It's fortunate that Valkyrie Anatomia returns to the greatest strength of the series: the individual tales of the Einherjar. As in the original Valkyrie Profile, Lenneth watches as mortals tread toward deaths of varying noble or tragic tones, taking in their mistakes, their sins, their vanities, their joys, and, most of all, their reasons for dying. At their finest, Valkyrie Profile games chronicle gods struggling to understand humans one sad story at a time, and Anatomia is replete with those.

In Defense of NES Strider

One truly lost element of the game industry is the fascinating divide between arcade titles and their console descendants. Prior to the mid-1990s, home consoles rarely hosted arcade games in their full glory; instead they were visually compromised, shrunken down, and otherwise altered to fit a less powerful home system. In some intriguing cases, developers reimagined arcade games entirely, creating Nintendo Entertainment System versions of Rygar, Bionic Commando, and Ninja Gaiden that were more complex and superior to their arcade originals.


Many of us mistook Strider for one of these examples back in 1989. The arcade Strider and the NES Strider were radically different games, seemingly sharing only the idea of an international ninja hero named Hiryu.

The truth was more elaborate: Capcom and the manga outfit Moto Kikaku conceived Strider as a three-part project. The arcade Strider went off on its own under the guidance of designer Koichi Yotsui, but the Strider Hiryu manga and the NES game follow much the same story and aesthetics.

The NES version of Strider is often painted as the inferior cousin of the Strider we saw in arcades and on the Sega Genesis. Yotsui’s take on the idea is one of constant spectacle: battles with giant robot gorillas, airship raids, anti-gravity rooms, and melodramatically voiced intermissions. How could a mere 8-bit NES game compete with that?




I’ll tell you how: pure style. The title screen for NES Strider immediately crackles and pulses, launching into an introduction to the Striders, “the toughest group of people,” and perhaps driving younger players of the era to look up “instigation” in the dictionary. A lengthy title tune (which was supposed to have lyrics in the Japanese version) accompanies Hiryu and his compatriots Kain and Sheena as they blow up helicopters, heft flamethrowers, and dash through a starswept void.

It doesn’t have the screen-filling creatures of its arcade relative, but the NES Strider’s storyline has a better excuse for traveling the globe. Matic, vice director of the Strider organization, orders steel-nerved Hiryu to find and execute his former comrade Kain. Hiryu, perhaps haunted by having to kill his own elite Strider sister not so long ago, spares Kain and treks from country to country: the stormy cities of Kazakh, the jungles of Africa, the…well, the high-tech underground of Los Angeles. I’m sure it actually exists.


It’s one futuristic jaunt after another, and each new location sheds some light on the mysterious Zain project. Never given to long cutscenes, Strider builds its tension with brief and measured revelations: data disks reveal bits of the storyline, and short conversations lead to bleak and murderous ends.

There’s another reason many disparage the NES version of Strider. It seems to play handily at the first go. Hiryu can slash with ease, and enemies hound him with fair persistence. Yet the bumps emerge soon: Hiryu’s springing leaps are unreliable, and he tends to snag on obstacles. The game has a choppy pace, with awkward screen scrolling, graphical glitches, and frequent flickering. Those attempting to play Strider on an NES emulator should be cautioned not to adjust their settings: that’s just how the game runs.

Final Fantasy VII Remake: The Shocking Truth

The recently landed Final Fantasy VII Remake is bold in its lack of scope. Rather than reimagining the whole of the original Final Fantasy VII, the first Remake game expands the first few hours of it, spent entirely in the urban confines of Midgar. It presents an engrossingly detailed version of the city, bringing new dimension to both the characters and their world as the player spends an entire full-length RPG in one city. By setting its sights so low, the new Final Fantasy VII somehow feels grander than ever.

Much of this time in Midgar sets up the prime conflict of Final Fantasy VII Remake: the nefarious Shinra Corporation drains mako energy from the planet, depleting the world’s natural vivacity and creating a cruelly unequal society. The lower classes reside literally beneath the more fortunate elites, with Midgar’s structural plates dividing the city into lavish upper levels and the impoverished ground-dwellers. Protagonist Cloud Strife finds himself in the revolutionary outfit Avalanche, driven to terrorism in their efforts to unravel Shinra’s environmental and economic tyranny. It all seems a simple struggle, with the player guiding Cloud in his defense of the oppressed underclasses.

Yet are Midgar’s alleged slum-dwellers really poor? Thanks to Final Fantasy VII Remake’s painstaking visual recast, we at last can see the truth.



Upon arriving in the Sector 7 Slums, Cloud drifts to the Seventh Heaven bar to reconnect with his childhood friend Tifa. Here we spy the first of many clues about just how well-off Midgar’s lowest neighborhood actually is. The bar has a television, a presumably robust supply of alcohol, a jukebox, a dartboard, and not one but two pinball machines! Avalanche leader Barret goes on ceaselessly about the injustices of Shinra, and Tifa sides with him. Yet if they’re so oppressed, why haven’t they sold these pinball machines to better their situation? 




Other signs appear when Tifa shows Cloud to his apartment. While he’s just arrived and has no visible luggage, Cloud finds the room already furnished. Even a brief look around reveals some perfectly good tables, a few plastic containers, several books, a relatively unrusted toolbox, and two bottles of indeterminate toiletry product on the sink. The sink even has a mirror! And all this Cloud gets for free in what we're told is the worst district of Midgar!

And that's hardly the end of the revelations about this supposedly bleak and squalid place.