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 usually so far from the mainstream that raving 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 you can reasonably say that Treasure is one of history’s finest game developers. Go on, say it. You’ll either score points with cool game nerds or annoy people who 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 other companies called Treasure. Understandable, but now that Treasure has seemingly receded to founder Masato Maegawa overseeing ports of a cherished older title, it just makes you long for the days of the purple box. 

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.

El Viento Returns, Sorta

El Viento remains a fascinating artifact from a facinating era. Like many early 1990s games heavy on anime style and resolute heroines, El Viento is cut from the same manic energy as anime OVAs of the decade prior. Yet it steps beyond the typical fantasy or science fiction milieu of the time, and it’s all the more enticing for that. 

Our story is technically about a green-haired Peruvian woman named Annet who wields wind magic and well-trained boomerangs as she fights mobsters, cultists, and vaguely Lovecraftian nightmares in 1928. That alone makes it stand out among side-scrolling action games of this vintage, but it doesn’t even cover the giant pixelated octopuses, the dolphin-riding, the skyscraper full of pteruges-wearing lizardmen, the Mount Rushmore totem-pole robots, or the speakeasy somehow full of ice dragons, sunglasses-sporting rats, and bartenders who look like mohawked versions of the Butterball cenobite.


In her journey Annet brilliantly embodies the allure of an entire era's anime OVAs and action games, both of which thrived on embracing weird sights and not caring one iota for how much sense it all might have made. Yes, El Viento has the usual cliches and the rough edges that typified even Wolfteam’s best games (of which El Viento is one), but it’s such an energetic and inventive journey that it’s hard not to emerge satisfied, endeared, or just sympathetic toward poor Annet at the downbeat conclusion. 

Physical copies of El Viento are expensive these days, as is the case with just about every decent Genesis and Super NES game that isn’t Pac-Man 2. Fortunately, El Viento isn’t trapped in some frustrating legal miasma like some other cult-favorite Genesis games that I definitely don’t talk about too much and definitely aren’t called Trouble Shooter. El Viento is legally available on the Evercade system already, but the recently announced Retro-Bit reissue of the game tries to come close to the original Genesis case and cartridge. 

Retro-Bit’s done a few reissues like this in recent years, offering Genesis cartridges with packaging that includes both the Japanese and international covers, plus a full-color manual and some other extra. And their El Viento re-release, announced alonside Sol-Deace, looks sharp in its recreation of the original Kazutoshi Yamane cover and the Renovation cover that I wrote about who knows how many years ago.

One thing bothers me: the cartridge itself. I’m not fond of translucent plastic in general, and pink is a strange color choice for El Viento. Yet what really jumps out at me is the label itself. The manga artwork, taken from ads and Yamane’s own El Viento comic in Beep! MegaDrive magazine, just doesn’t look right on a cartridge label, particularly when it’s cropped so awkwardly, and combined with the color choice it looks like someone cut out a manga panel and stuck it on a Jolly Rancher. 

It's almost enough to put me off buying Retro-Bit’s version of El Viento—or at least enough to take it from something I’ll instantly purchase, squawking like a trained parrot all the while, to much vaguer status. 

Am I being too picky? Shouldn’t I be glad that El Viento is available for less than a family of three’s monthly food budget? Should I really count it a deal-breaker just because I don’t want to look at that neon lollipop of a cartridge in my Genesis and reflexively think it’s a bootleg? Shouldn’t I get this in the hopes that we’ll see reissues of more Genesis rarities and perhaps the other two decidedly lesser games in the El Viento trilogy, Earnest Evans and Annet Again

Really, why do I care so much about this trivial detail? Perhaps I should look to El Viento for the answer.

Ah, yes. Now it all makes sense.

Bounty Arms: Going Data West

Uh-oh. I haven’t written about Bounty Arms in over a year! That’s perhaps understandable, since an unreleased PlayStation action game from 1995 doesn’t exactly make daily tabloid headlines (like BANNED BOUNTY BABES BOUND BACK). Yet I, as the president and sole member of the Bounty Arms Preservation Society, remain dedicated to chronicling every new mention and detail about this intriguing and still partially lost game. 

The standard introduction applies: Bounty Arms is a canceled action game from the first year of the PlayStation, and it combined familiar genre staples as mecha enemies and stylish anime heroines with a unique multifunctional Relic Arm weapon. It looked neat and got as far as a bare-bones demo (which you can find here), but publisher Data West delayed and eventually canceled it, leaving Bounty Arms yet another intriguing and likely unfinished title. 

Data West intrigues me as well. They were yet another technology company that dipped into game development and pulled out when it stopped making them money, and they’re still around today. Their website offers some of their old games for sale, though only for Japan. That may reflect the fact that Data West’s games were seldom known on an international scale. Even today, a lot of people assume you’re talking about Data East. 

That brings me to the catalyst for this update: a nice YouTube video from F_T_B, discussing Data West’s history with an eye on their adventure games. It’s a reminder of just how much of Japan’s game industry remains relatively unknown in the English-speaking world. Series like The 4th Unit and Psychic Detective had strong followings in Japan yet no recognition in the West outside of some scattered and astute importers. And again, even today people might assume you’re talking about the unrelated Electronic Arts FMV game that was also called Psychic Detective.

The video refers to Bounty Arms as a shooter, however, and that is incorrect. As you can see from the demo itself, the game allows heroines Chris and Rei to wield their telescoping cyber-arms like whips, grappling hooks, bullet-deflectors, and spinning flamethrowers—but never firearms. That’s part of what fascinates me about Bounty Arms.

That aside, the video does a great job of covering Data West’s catalog beyond Brave Prove and the Rayxanber series. It makes one realize how graphic adventures like The 4th Unit were the company’s most abundant creations, and it makes the cogent point that Data West often backed the wrong horses when it came to putting their games on consoles like the LaserActive. 

In fact, that makes Bounty Arms all the more tantalizing. For once Data West was on a winning team, getting in at the ground floor of the PlayStation’s first year and, according to an interview with Yasuhito Saito, getting Sony’s earnest support for the game. By the time they canceled Bounty Arms and published Brave Prove in 1999, the PlayStation scene was far more crowded. 

So would Bounty Arms have succeeded back in 1995? It might have been overshadowed by other action games like Gunners Heaven, but there certainly wasn’t anything like Bounty Arms’ 2-D overhead approach and Relic Arm mechanics in the PlayStation’s early lineup. Would fans of arcade-style action games and traditional hand-drawn graphics have rallied around it, or would Bounty Arms have been seen as archaic and limited by critics who dismissed traditional games while feverishly lionizing many mediocre games with new 3-D visuals that would age as well as sour cream on the summer pavement? Could Bounty Arms have made it in a world where a magazine might fawn over the embarrassment of Toshinden while fobbing off such hand-drawn brilliance as Darkstalkers 3 and Guardian Heroes with banal three-out-of-five-star reviews? No, I’m not still bitter over that. Not me.

These are the things we might discuss at regular meetings of the Bounty Arms Preservation Society. Joining is free and confers nothing, but since the society has no vice president, treasurer, press secretary, minutes-taker, research assistant, or caterer, all of those positions are open to the first applicants. They’ll look sharp on your CV or resume.

Mechanized Attack: The Mystery of Maiko

Anyone who praises the innocence and honesty of children has never heard them discuss video games and invariably lie. This was especially common during the height of Nintendo’s popularity in the late 1980s, when millions of homes had the Nintendo Entertainment System and millions of children had excuses to make up all sorts of nonsense about it. 

The most daring falsehoods often involved nudity. Finish Metroid five times and Samus Aran will be naked. Beat Super Mario Bros. in two minutes and both Mario and Peach (known then in the West by the superior title of Toadstool) will be naked. Input a special code at Double Dragon’s title screen and everyone will be naked in every way imaginable.

These were lies, of course, and such filth was not hiding in any NES game. Except one.

Mechanized Attack is an obscure game no matter where you look. Even the SNK 40th Anniversary Collection didn’t bother with either the arcade original or the NES port. And yet that NES version is unique, for it makes those bawdy playground myths come true.

A special code, documented by The Cutting Room Floor, unlocks a "System Construction Figure" menu that lets players skip levels, adjust their arsenals, and so on. A blue-haired woman in a dress and sweater navigates the options, and certain selections cause her to gradually lose her clothing to the point where she becomes completely naked.

Going beyond that removes our hostess entirely and replaces her with a hexagram, as though the programmer who created this was intent on featuring everything Nintendo wouldn’t allow in the North American market (and Mechanized Attack was only released there). The game already has rampant violence, so why not add nudity and a potentially religious symbol? 

This secret menu is, we remind you, accessible in the standard cartridge release of Mechanized Attack. There’s no ROM hacking needed. Every impressionable child and concerned parent in America could see this just by holding down the right buttons at the title screen. 

A small mystery is hidden in the game’s code, however. The words “Maiko’s Special Mode” lie unused in the data files and definitely refer to this debug menu. It has a nicer ring than System Construction Figure, at least.

But who’s Maiko? No character with that name appears in Mechanized Attack. As far as I can tell, the game has no story scenes of note and no cast beyond its largely unseen Terminator-inspired protagonists. Its ultimate villain is a giant computer-encased brain (as in Lupin III: The Mystery of Mamo and a hundred other works) instead of a human terrorist ringleader, and the ending simply shows the enemy base exploding and thereby restoring world peace. There’s no blue-tressed woman to sell the heroes weapons, scamper across the battlefield, or await rescue at the game’s conclusion. 

Maiko could be from a different SNK title, but I find no leads there. It’s also possible she was a singer, actress, or some other real-life celebrity who caught a programmer’s fancy. And it’s not out of the question that Maiko was the actual programmer—or perhaps some SNK employee who the Mechanized Attack staff exploited with a hidden menu. That would fit with artist Hiroko Yokoyama‘s stories of SNK’s chauvinistic work climate in the 1980s. 

The most likely and reassuring theory is that Maiko is just an original character devised entirely for this menu, with no links to the real world or other games. Her purpose was merely to guide players through a debug lineup and, many years later, to exonerate those misguided youth who concocted stories about video games hiding all sorts of lascivious depths. 

Of course, those kids are only off the hook if they were discussing Mechanized Attack. The rest of them proved themselves vile little distortionists with their risque conjectures about Mario and Zelda and dozens of other games. Given Nintendo’s recent legal pursuits, they're lucky that the statute of limitations on slander has expired.

News: Full-Motion-Video Classics Become the Next Great Game Adaptations

(Hollywood, California) No longer the beeps and bloops of Pac-Man, video games are growing up. Cable and streaming services, emboldened by HBO’s critically lauded The Last of Us, are hoping to find similar success by adapting games that already mix in the magic of movies and TV: they're the full-motion-video masterpieces of the 1990s. 

"With its harrowing vision of everyday people struggling to survive in the face of a devastating apocalypse, The Last of Us represents a new apex for video games and great original stories in general," said Gregor Madison, a pop-culture critic who also believes that The Walking Dead invented zombies and that Harry Potter was the first ever fiction about a wizard school. “Audiences want to see more of that, so studios are seeking out the finest games to adapt for TV.”

A second season of The Last of Us is already on the way, but HBO hopes to deliver another game-inspired and binge-worthy series while fans wait: Night Trap, based on Sega’s 1992 FMV adventure game, premieres this summer. The series explores a house full of young women menaced by vampire-like creatures called Augurs, with Scarlett Johansson starring as agent Kelli Medd and Daniel Day-Lewis emerging from retirement just to take on the role of Commander Simms. 

“You usually don’t think of video games as having actual stories,” said Randy Evans, lead writer for the Night Trap series. "Most of them are just dots on the screen. But there was a whole variety of these amazing full motion games in the 1990s that brought together movies and video games in amazing ways.” 

Night Trap is only the first of several Sega FMV games optioned by studios and streaming services. Apple TV recently announced a Sewer Shark limited series starring John C. McGinley as Ghost, while Hulu is currently developing an original movie based on the zombie-filled Corpse Killer

Not to be outdone, Netflix revealed plans to adapt a number of FMV games, including the cyberpunk thriller Burn Cycle, the monster-themed horror tale It Came From the Desert, and the surreal action saga Duelin’ Firemen.

If audiences like what they see, there’s plenty to feed future series. The FMV genre enjoyed its heyday on consoles like the Sega CD and Panasonic 3DO during the mid-1990s, when developers used the then-new CD format to create entire games with footage of live actors. Though some derided these games for their crude production values and limited interactivity, many in the entertainment world now see them as the ancestors of modern high-budget titles like The Last of Us—and perhaps their successors as well. 

“This forward-looking full-motion-video stuff was the closest that video games ever got to quality television until The Last of Us came along,” explained Netflix producer Terry Stein. “My daughter told me about this game called Undertale that seems to be popular with a lot of kids. But when you look at it, there's nothing to work with. The graphics are all just these pixels. Nothing looks real. The main character, you know, the hero of the story, doesn't even have a name."

Stein instead decided to adapt a standout of the FMV era: the rollicking and risqué comedy Plumbers Don’t Wear Ties. Netflix has already renewed it for a second season. 

Indeed, a popular video game doesn’t necessarily make for good TV. Square Enix’s Final Fantasy series was long known for its cinematic sequences, but when Starz producer Jayden Morgen dove deep into the company’s catalog, the pick of the litter was obvious: the 1997 adventure game Another Mind.

“Final Fantasy might work as a video game,” Morgen said, “But we wanted something that could deliver the impact of truly good television, with real actors that rise above that whole cartoony kiddie pool of most games.” 

Other studios are willing to take a few risks when it comes to adapting full-motion-video games. Amazon Prime has optioned several 1980s FMV games that employ animated footage instead of real-life actors: the mystic fantasy Strahl, the post-apocalyptic revenge tale Road Avenger, and the whimsical sci-fi adventure Time Gal.

"It might be hard to adapt a video game that doesn't slavishly reproduce the atmosphere of a routine prestige television series or an Oscar-bait film," admitted Crystal Meyer, director of the Time Gal series. "But I think we can pull it off with a great cast, great storytelling, and the appropriate level of contempt for the source material." 

Even so, the current trend of studios sifting out the best and brightest of video games has some hiccups—or glitches, perhaps. Netflix recently canceled plans for a series based on the 2018 cinematic adventure game Detroit: Become Human due to what an anonymous source describes as "the amateurish source material."

Journey to the Center of Wurm

Those of cynical mindset could deem Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth a messy game, but they’d be wrong. At the very least it’s several messy games combined into one, a multi-genre hybrid that delivers shooting stages, side-scroller levels, unique first-person boss battles, and through it all the story of a spirited lady protagonist named Moby. 


Well, that’s what the manual calls her. See? There’s something charmingly odd about the low-key chauvinism of labeling her a “lady protagonist,” perhaps in testament to how few games in the Nintendo Entertainment System's library actually have women in lead roles. However, there’s more to Moby and Wurm itself.

For starters, they’re both ambitious. Our green-haired heroine captains a tunneling craft called the VZR-5, drilling deep into the earth in a search for previous VZR expeditions—and, in particular, her boyfriend Ziggy (possibly named after the David Bowie album and probably not the bulbous-nosed comic character). She stumbles into a complicated subterranean war between the remnants of ancient kingdoms who somehow combine every major mythic lost civilization into a single tale.

And Wurm winds her journey across four types of levels. The VZR flies through caverns in horizontal stages as well as vertically scrolling ones, while Moby ventures out of the ship to wander ruins and tunnels sparsely populated by beasts. Each chapter showcases a clash between the VZR and a large monster, which requires Moby to talk to the crew for hints and “possibility” points while dodging and shooting down the creature’s attacks. And there’s a little tedium in every format: the VZR shooter levels are simple, the on-foot stages have little variety in their enemies, and the boss battles involve a lot of seemingly pointless chatter and awkward aiming.

Yet it’s a fascinating game in full, as each piece of Wurm has its layers. The shooter levels may not be very complex in their design, but they let the VZR transform into different forms that gain new weapons, abilities, or just better fuel rates. A depleting energy meter keeps Moby’s crew from being too cautious, and a regenerating energy shield makes their ship vulnerable only when it takes damage rapidly. That balancing act lifts the stages beyond the typical NES shooter.

Moby’s side-scrolling forays are simpler in their demands: she explores, she jumps, she kicks, and she wields a handgun with a limited ammo supply. Yet the stages she wanders are intriguing sights, with their random backdrops of ancient ruins and empty caverns, and the subtle colors mix well with a soundtrack that’s bubbly, sharp, and just a little haunting.

And the first-person battles with massive creatures? True, Moby spends a lot of time chatting repetitively with crew members who try to puzzle out a creature’s weakness and raise that possibility percentage to a hundred, at which point a single shot brings down your foe. However, there’s some personality in the conversations (including a Helen Keller reference you might not expect) and a share of twists along the way as the boss lineup expands to an organic-mechanical creation and a face-off with Moby's own ship. Wurm’s plot twists aren’t elaborate, but they’re plentiful for a title from 1991. If there’s ever a dull point in the story or the gameplay, there’s always something new right ahead.

Moby herself shows the same variety. She’s seemingly pulled straight from an outlandish 1980s anime OVA, sashaying through hostile terrain in epaulets and a battle leotard while the rest of her crew wears sensible jumpsuits, but she’s a surprisingly resolute main character for an NES game. Wurm lets her face trepidations, grieve her losses, marvel over discoveries, brim with vengeful fury, and, even taunt arrogant underworld rulers. It’s no competition for our modern array of complex heroes showing us all that games are serious entertainment (and don’t you forget it), but for an era when video games had threadbare premises and silent heroes, Moby certainly gets her moments. The best ones come when she’s sassing monstrous thugs who, apparently shocked at the idea of NES-era protagonists with actual personalities, can only muster retorts of “Whaat!”

Wurm stands alone, though it bears more than a faint resemblance to Vic Tokai’s original Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode. Moby doesn’t seduce secret agents in hotels or snipe Hitler’s pickled brain, but her sprite has a similar soft-edged look, and her game has similar diversity (though she moves much faster and smoother than Duke Togo). That’s no accident, as designer Shouichi “Angela” Yoshikawa was the driving force behind both games. Together with producer Hiroshi Kazama and developer Cyclone System, Yoshikawa drew inspiration from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Lost in Space, and Cyborg 009, casting a web wide enough that Wurm never feels bluntly derivative of one particular source

Yoshikawa even maintained a website all about Wurm. It’s apparently lost now, but there’s still a great in-depth interview at the GDRI. Even without the creator’s site, Wurm has steadily gained a better reputation, evolving from a possible “kusoge” to an expensive Famicom title and, I hope, a genuine cult favorite. Is it just the plucky lady protagonist? Perhaps that’s part of it, but Wurm offers more than that. There’s a vision behind it, an inspired tone that comes from a creator believing in their creation and overseeing it every step of the way. Heck, Yoshikawa even did the localization!

I was harsh toward Wurm when I wrote about it for GameSetWatch many years ago, citing its jumbled approach and frequently empty stages. Yet I’ve come around, and now I count it among my favorite NES titles. The gameplay mixture is enticing, the vacant side-scrolling levels evoke mystery in ways I never noticed before, and Moby sticks around in memory after most protagonists (gentleman or lady) fade away. I had yet to realize that it doesn’t matter if games are critically, objectively good, if such a thing even exists. All that matters is whether they’re interesting or not. And Wurm is.

Bunny Girls Interrupted

The Playboy bunny girl costume is an unavoidable fixture of sexist pop culture—and a persistent one in video games. Showing women in rabbit ears and scant corsets isn’t just for pandering fighting games like Dead or Alive and Variable Geo; the practices arises in Emerald Dragon, Lunar: Eternal Blue, Super Robot Wars Original Generation, several Dragon Quests, and so forth. And in that warren of rabbit-girl getups there’s an equally varied history of how publishers censored them. 

One example lies in Heavyweight Championship Boxing, an early Game Boy outing from Tonkin House and the furtively prolific developer Tose. It’s an ambitious but clumsy game with only a few dabs of personality; there’s a nice soundtrack to bounce everything along, and I salute the Tose graphic designer who put extra effort into making the obligatory ring girl a vision of ‘80s anime style.

There’s even a hint of Haruhiko Mikimoto about her, as though Minmay from Macross is working boxing matches after her experimental prog-industrial album failed to chart or to pacify a fleet of grouchy alien giants.

The original Japanese game, titled Boxing with the refreshing directness of an early Game Boy release, had a few more details. The ring girl sports rabbit ears and stand-alone shirt cuffs, and there’s a bonus code that lets players confirm that she’s also wearing the fishnets typical of a woman promoting Playboy-brand objectification. Activision took these details out of the game’s North American release, presumably for the same precautions that led the publishers to rename characters like “Mai Taison.”

Most North American game publishers of the era, however, were not so skittish. If some games removed bunny girl depictions they were expunged entirely, presumably more for their suggestive nature than legal concerns. Other games showed no concern. For example, the waitresses of Casino Kid still sport their bunny ears, albeit only in portraits that would draw neither lawyers nor complaints of risqué content.

Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting, a light-game from Nintendo themselves, goes further when depicting shooting-gallery hostess Trixie in a bunny girl outfit throughout the game. This wasn’t a case of the Japanese release’s design choices slipping through, either, since Barker Bill was released only in North America and Europe.

Then there’s the most prominent bunny girl in video games: Rami from the Keio Flying Squadron series. She goes through two games thwarting the monstrous forces of a tanuki despot (a raccoon if you’re playing the localized Sega CD game), all while wearing a distinct Playboy bunny outfit.

JVC changed nothing about Rami’s outfit for Keio Flying Squadron’s North American release. Indeed, magazine spots even play it up, encouraging the reader to “strap on your bunny ears and save the world.” The Sega Saturn sequel skipped the Western hemisphere, but the European version of Keio Flying Squadron 2 features Rami and her bunny attire on the cover, as though in open defiance of any Playboy attorneys who might spot it.

It seems that bunny girl outfits aren’t much of a legal hurdle after all. They appear in anime from FLCL to The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya to something called Rascal Does Not Dream of Bunny Girl Senpai, and no one seems to mind in the international market. Gainax’s original Daicon IV convention promo has a famous depiction of a bunny girl heroine who flies through undisguised depictions of everything from Golden Bat villains to Star Wars ships. And there she’s probably the least of the short film’s gleeful copyright infringements.

Playboy-style bunny costumes, as far as they appear in Japanese media, are such a cliché that any legal challenges would be closing the barn door well after the cows left. Or shutting the pen after the rabbits hopped out. Or changing Playboy club standards after the waitresses all quit in protest over the outfits they had to wear.

Yet Activision and Tose might not have been entirely overcautious in excising the ring girl’s bunny garb in Heavyweight Championship Boxing. In 2020 Playboy sued costume manufacturer Fashion Nova for “disregarding trademark protections” with a line of bunny outfits. One can only hope they won’t go after Nintendo, or else we might never see a revival of Barker Bill’s Trick Shooting.

Notes for the Gravity Rush Movie

Gravity Rush is getting a movie, if you remember. It was announced four months ago, so that’s plenty of time for us to forget all about it or file it away with Metroid, Spy Hunter, Rollercoaster Tycoon, and other game-based film projects never to be made. 

You must forgive my jaundiced view of this. When I covered anime industry news for a living, each month brought some new announcement of an anime, manga, video game, or related property optioned for Hollywood treatment, whether it was a Robotech film with Tobey Maguire attached, Tim Burton’s Mai the Psychic Girl musical, or ADV Films’ long-discussed (and apparently scripted) Evangelion movie. And most of them vanished without a trace.  

Yet perhaps I should hope that this Gravity Rush movie will go into production. I pretty much gave up on seeing more of the series once Gravity Rush 2 wrapped up almost everything, and a movie has the potential to further explore the games’ fascinating world, dizzying aerial acrobatic combat, and charming characters. I’ll be optimistic enough to deliver some suggestions as to what a Gravity Rush movie should entail. 

-Kat, our gravity-controlling heroine, should see a thing happening and then say "Well, that just happened." This will convey to audiences that she is a sarcastic and astute observer of events that transpire within her field of perception.  

-Dusty, as her cat companion, should deliver quips such as "Don’t ask me! I’m just here for the free mice!" and "Flying is easy! I always land on my feet!” 

-The movie should feature the Superjesus song “Gravity,” because no one buys movie tickets more than fans of underappreciated Australian alternative bands.  

-A character should make a joke about the word "pussy" and its varied meanings with regard to Dusty and Kat. Perhaps Kevin Smith could guest-write this gag. 

-The credits should contain no less than 26 stingers for other possible films in the PlayStation Cinematic Universe, including but not limited to Horizon, Infamous, Shadow of the Colossus, Knack, Tokyo Jungle, Journey, MediEvil, Tiny Tank, Elemental Gearbolt, Wild Arms, Project: Horned Owl, Arc the Lad, Motor Toon Grand Prix, Gunners Heaven, Crime Crackers, and the Legend of Polygon Man.  

-All characters should speak in the fictional, vaguely French language invented for Gravity Rush, with no subtitles present throughout the entire movie.* 

-In her efforts to protect the people of Hekseville, Kat should run afoul of a newspaper editor who declares her a “menace” while unwittingly buying photographs she takes of herself. Kat should also run up against a Kat clone who later reveals that she is the original Kat and that the Kat the audience knows is actually the clone. This plot twist will be dismissed in the sequel due to everyone hating it. 

-Any possible lesbian subtext between any characters should be limited to scenes that can be easily edited out by cowards and/or bigots.  

-Kat should be played by a snowy white actress, a terrible decision that the production staff will defend in numerous ill-advised and covertly racist ways. This will all work out in the end because there’s no such thing as bad publicity.  

-When the Gravity Rush movie is nearing its debut, all press materials should say "Gravity Rush drops into theaters on [date here]."  

And that’s just what I’m giving away for free! I have hundreds of completely original ideas for the Gravity Rush movie, available to any producer who wants to hire me as a creative consultant. I assume that would entail me playing Gravity Rush games all day and occasionally suggesting that Kat or Dusty should make jokes about barfing up hairballs.  

*I actually like this idea.