Depressing Game Endings: El Viento

El Viento is among my favorite weird games, perhaps because it isn't all that weird. Compared to Katamari Damacy or Cho-Aniki or even the culturally ratified oddities of Super Mario Bros., El Viento is ordinary. It’s a side-scrolling action game with jumping and boomerang-tossing, and its base effect isn't so different from the many other Sega Genesis titles where a fetching heroine saves the world from some eldritch menace.

Look closer, and you'll see invention. Like the two other (lesser) parts of the Earnest Evans trilogy, El Viento is steeped in 1920s adventure and interdimensional horrors, as it sends lithe Peruvian explorer Annet from Chicago streets to hellish caverns and an Empire State Building built to summon demons. Like Indiana Jones with gangsters and Lovecraft beasts instead of Nazis and chilled monkey brains, El Viento brims with lower-key strangeness, and it's more fascinating for that.

So much of El Viento mixes typical action with fabulously bizarre details. Annet starts off by fighting Al Capone's thugs, but then she leaps across a Mount Rushmore full of smiling gun turrets and a floating cactus chain. Then she raids a blind-tiger club full of tiny imp mobsters and sluglike bartenders who explode when struck by her boomerangs and magic spells. Then she hops on a dolphin and rides straight into giant pixel jellyfish-octopuses. They explode as well. Most of the enemies come in weird and flammable varieties, and there’s never a reason why. Even the rats that pester Annet in a sewer look like they're wearing little sunglasses.


See? They're cool rats.


Annet does all of this to keep cultists and criminals from summoning the ancient deity Hastur, but she's also out to rescue her sister Restiana. Despite rampant evidence that the cult's planning to sacrifice her, Restiana is convinced that she'll become a veritable goddess with Hastur's powers, and she openly asks why Annet opposes them. Annet's response?


That's a solid riposte, Annet. In fact, that screenshot can be used in all sorts of arguments. The next time someone on a forum asks why you favor socialized medicine or oppose a poll tax or enjoy Gundam X, hit 'em with Annet's counter. They'll either give up in disgust or congratulate you on your taste in Genesis games.

Annet's sharp rejoinders fail to sway Restiana, and the game's climax sees the two sisters meeting atop an under-construction Empire State Building. Restiana turns into Hastur's dragonlike form, and Annet destroys the creature.


Hooray!

Oh wait. There’s more to this ending.


Well. That’s not as uplifting. Annet looks on in sorrow as she saves the world but not her misguided sister. This is made all the more haunting by the Earnest Evans trilogy’s tendency to show defeated bosses as viciously mangled corpses. In El Viento, you don't discreetly fade away or gasp out dying solemnities with only a tasteful line of blood at the corner of your mouth. If you mess with Annet, she’ll tear open your ribcage like a stubborn bag of Doritos.


Annet’s resolute fa├žade cracks completely as the ending continues, and she tearfully collapses into the embrace of Earnest, who hasn’t done much else in this entire game. No wonder the third Earnest Evans title was once again all about Annet.

And so El Viento closes with Annet murdering her sister and facing the gravity of her deeds in the most gruesome way. What’s more, her longtime friend Zigfried slinks off, his thoughts revealing that he's got something nasty in mind for Earnest and Annet. There's not much to be happy about here.

It's even more downbeat when you consider that things never improved for Annet. The third and last Earnest Evans game, Annet Futatabi, is a mediocre brawler, and Telenet and Wolfteam ditched the series afterward. They had high hopes for Annet at first, even going so far as to cast her in marketable bighead form, but El Viento never became as momentous as the Valis series, and Annet never became another Yuko. But considering how Telenet turned out a Valis X line of porn games in 2006, Annet might've succeeded a lot worse.

Pity for Annet comes easily. She has engaging pluck about her, and even her typically scant outfit benefits from a few colorful flourishes. Yet the game reduces her mostly to reactions instead of genuine personality, and that may be why she didn’t stick around. In fact, even more vivacious heroines were denied the careers they deserved in the early 1990s. Popful Mail burned with charming avarice, but Falcom never gave her an ongoing series. Madison and Crystal delivered quips and parodies over two Trouble Shooter games, but that was as far as they went. Annet couldn't hope to go further.

Arcade of My Youth: Landstuhl

A lot of us had childhood arcades, and most of us saw them change. If you’re my age, you might’ve watched a gallery of varied offerings, Final Fight and Ghosts ‘N Goblins and Raiden and all, shift into a throng of Street Fighter II, Mortal Kombat, and every fighting game aping their success. If you’re older than I am, you might’ve seen an arcade trade pop-culture staples like Pac-Man and Space Invaders for things with vaguer goals and smaller crowds. If you’re younger than I am, you might’ve had time only to observe a neighborhood fixture waste down to a few prize-grabber machines and an Area 51 cabinet with one defective plastic pistol. Then it finally closed and signaled that the modern world has little space for childhood arcades.

I say all of this in envy, because I never had much of a childhood arcade. I spent five years of that childhood in Germany, as my father was in the Air Force. Instead of living on an American military base, we lived in a German village, and if that warren of half-timbered homes and dangerously sharp turns had an arcade, I never found it.

The closest I had was the small arcade at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center. It was a mere nook in the base cafeteria, but it was my best vision of quarter-devouring culture in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The selection was the video-game equivalent of the Armed Forces Network, where you’d see current TV shows like ALF and In Living Color aired in tandem with black-and-white movies. Older Kung-Fu and Tiger-Heli cabinets would sit alongside Cabal and Golden Axe, and I couldn’t be sure if a game would stick around for the next time my family dropped by the BX.

In this arcade the size of a small moving van, I remember three games most vividly.

WARDNER 
Arcades intimidated me, and I doubt I was alone. A game on the computer or NES could be practiced in your own home, but arcade titles were merciless and impatient. You put in a quarter and tried to grasp the gameplay through a joystick and buttons, and heaven help the slow learners.

My mother always admonished me against playing arcade games. I once thought she merely disdained them as unproductive wastes, but I now think she had a more insightful motive. She didn’t want me spending money on arcade games because I was terrible at them.

That’s why Wardner got my attention. Arcade games tended to kill you off in barrages of enemy bullets or throngs of street punks, but Wardner was less threatening at first. It was a side-scrolling game where a pudgy hobbit bounced across forest floors and threw fireballs. It was a lot like Super Mario Bros., and I already knew how to play that! This Wardner thing should be easy!


Well, it wasn’t. Wardner is an action-platform game from Toaplan, a company better known for crafting impressive shooters like Batsugun and Outzone. Those shooters are tough, and so is Wardner. It sees its rotund hero waddling through a fantasy realm in search of his girlfriend, who’s encased in crystal and offered to the local tyrant, Mr. Wardner. Our protagonist can boost his fire magic and don a protective cloak, but at the game’s start he tosses only one limp flame at a time, and a single hit does him in. I’d later learn that his name is Dover, but after losing a few quarters to the game, I was more inclined to call him Fatsy Bumbledick.

As frustrating as Wardner was, it fascinated me with the loose, unexplained logic arcade games often put forth. The second level is a dilapidated factory where Fatsy faces whirling blades, conveyor belts, spiked drones, and other challenges required by any game where someone can jump. Yet I was intrigued to see all of this pop up after a stage full of forests and castles and dragons. Was Mr. Wardner trying to industrialize this peaceful land, like something out of that unnecessary chapter at the end of The Lord of the Rings? Or did Wardner actually occur in the future, when gnomes and fairies live among the ruins of humankind and an entire factory still treads on in ignorance, slowly devolving into one massive death trap?


I also liked what awaits at the end of the factory. You’ll see a woman pacing in a locked room, but once the level-boss dragon is defeated and the door is opened, she turns into a generic ghoul. If that occurred only on the second level, I just knew that the game held stranger twists later on. Perhaps the real villain would be Fatsy’s crystalized sweetheart or some mutated, long-lived survivor of whatever catastrophe had ended human civilization!

Wardner wasn’t worth my speculation. As I found out years later, it grows wearisomely hard by the last stage, and there are no shockers apart from Mr. Wardner transforming from an aged sorcerer to a hirsute demon. That's really a standard disappearing-handkerchief trick among the dark sorcerers of video games. Wardner is just an average action title with a few neat ideas and solid Toaplan execution. It’s Ghosts ‘N Goblins after a big fatty meal, but for a little while it opened up a post-apocalyptic fantasyland for me. In several ways.

POWER DRIFT 
The Landstuhl base arcade was a cubbyhole. It had room for about half a dozen cabinets, and it didn't hold any of those oversized setups that mimic jet cockpits or racecar seats. Perhaps that was deliberate, because those things always attracted little kids who'd sit inside and mess with the controls even if they weren’t playing. I was one of them at first.


The most elaborate home belonged to Power Drift. Unsuited to conventional controls, it was a regular upright cabinet with foot pedals at its base and a steering wheel where the joystick might be. That caught my eye. I also liked how forgiving the game was compared to others in the arcade. Instead of some hellish gauntlet of alien ships or spiked pits, it sent a bunch of stereotyped ‘80s drivers around a track. It didn’t doom you instantly if you screwed up, and you usually got to drive for an entire race even if you constantly crashed into things and careened off the track. Which I usually did.

Power Drift also stands out in my memory for the reactions it provoked. One day a slightly older kid wandered into the arcade and went from one game to another, yelling about whatever he saw onscreen. He must’ve thought he was cool.

He reached Power Drift, watched for a moment, and let fly with his witticism.

“WHOAAA, EMILY BABY!” he shouted.


Power Drift’s demo mode includes portraits of the game’s drivers, and the last one shown is Emily. She looks straight out of a Jordache ad or perhaps a 1980s horror movie where she’d have to recite lines like “This isn't funny!" and "You're scaring me!” before her gruesome end.

There are moments in life that teach us lessons with perfect, unimpeachable clarity. The young arcade catcaller made me realize that the harder you try to be cool, the less cool you actually seem. In the years to follow, I became a lonely and hollow adolescent, and I developed small crushes on several women who existed only in video games. But I at least knew that I shouldn’t reveal these attractions to anyone—or shout about them in an arcade.

THE MYSTERY SHOOTER 
I suspect that arcade games were fascinating to us partly because they were ephemeral. We might get only a glimpse of a blob bouncing through a maze or a high-tech jet blasting its way through the lattices of an orbital station. Then mom would drag us away, and we’d never see that game again. Even after MAME came along and presented decades of arcade games to explore, we might never recall those lost games well enough to find them.

I remember the titles of nearly every game hosted by the Landstuhl arcade, but one escaped me. I saw it the last time I visited the arcade, and I didn’t play it.

This game of mystery was foreboding on two fronts. For one thing, it was a spaceship shooter, and I sucked at those even more than I sucked at side-scrolling action games about inept hobbit magicians. The game also showed a screen that read “IF YOU ARE PLAYING THIS GAME OUTSIDE OF NORTH AMERICA YOU MAY BE INVOLVED IN A CRIME” or something to that effect. Distributors used these to prevent piracy and unauthorized exportation, and this was the first time I saw such a message. I wasn’t sure I could play it. Technically, the military base was American territory. Geographically, I was in Germany. I figured it was best not to risk some MPs barging into the arcade and calling my parents and banning me from video games for life.

I couldn’t put a title on the game for years, and I remembered scant details. It was a side-scrolling shooter, it had very vivid, glowing backgrounds, and one stage had metal scenery and a fleet of green helicopter enemies. That was all I had.

I recently tried tracking down this mystery shooter, and after an hour or so I found the most likely suspect: Kaneko’s Heavy Unit.


Heavy Unit is a cruelly difficult game, and I’m certain I would have lasted about forty-five seconds on it back in 1991. Yet it’s also a visually imaginative game, with stages that throw new backgrounds and fresh, weird enemies your way every ten seconds or so. You might speed down a corridor of alien cilia, blasting skull centipedes, a crablike prize-catcher, and fire-breathing serpents before you scale a pyramid to face gargoyles and a giant horned demon’s visage. And that’s all in the first level. I especially like the backdrop of skeletal white trees that starts off the second level, like you’re flying through some subterranean world in a nuclear winter, or navigating one of Fiver's visions in the Watership Down movie.

So Heavy Unit fulfills all three of my memories: it’s a side-view shooter, it has pulsating reddish backgrounds at several points, and the third stage brings out a fleet of little copter-mechs. That’s where I stopped playing for research purposes. I’d already surpassed my younger self.


The only thing that Heavy Unit lacks is that warning screen I misinterpreted all those years ago, but I’m going to count it as a match and consider this case closed. Now I need to hunt for a side-scrolling fantasy-action game I saw at a French rest stop circa 1988. It had a hero with a double-bladed axe and an intro where someone got kidnapped. That should narrow things down.

And that was it for my childhood half-arcade. My family moved to Ohio, where there were arcades aplenty but none within walking range. It wasn’t until I became a teenager that the neighborhood got an arcade called Cap’n Bogey’s Golf ‘N Games.

But that’s a story for another time.

Story: Special Armor

In an effort to pad out this si...er, update more often, I'll post the occasional short story of mine. This one sat on Tumblr for a while, but I like it enough to reproduce it here. Read it! It's not very long. 

And yes, I'll have something about video games or old cartoons or Battle Beasts before long.

Did we lose them?

I think so. You felled the largest two among them. The rest won’t follow so close.

It couldn’t be helped, I suppose. Shall we open it now?

May as well, if it’s not spell-sealed.

How’d those poor hill gnomes get a chest like that? It looks like Falyrien work.

How else? They stole it from travelers. And probably ate them. So don’t be sad over killing a few, Vesme.

I’m…well, never mind that. Just open it.

Hmmm.

What? Let me see!

Some coins and a helm.

How about that red jewel?

It’s too light. Probably fake. Altrian merchants use them as barter-marks all the time.

Oh. At least there’s a helm. Let me try it on! Maybe it fits better than this one.

If not, we sell it.

Look, there’s something inside!


Nintendo Power's Greatest Gossip Gremlins

Nintendo Power had a fascinating look in its early years. It was, of course, a promotional sheaf for all things Nintendo, but the magazine’s staff enjoyed an unprecedented relationship with Japanese publishers. With that came artwork and layouts rarely spotted in America.

Within Nintendo Power you’d see spindly Clash at Demonhead heroes, plastic Blaster Master and Metal Storm models, Mega Man robots somewhere between an American cartoon and a Japanese comic, and lavish art for the lesser-known likes of Astyanax, Code Name: Viper, and Legacy of the Wizard. And you’d see the detailed illustrations of the now-respected Katsuya Terada adorning features for Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior, and Ultima. Even the comic-strip adventures of Howard and Nester, the former based on Howard Phillips and the latter a bratty little mascot, had distinct manga styling. Nintendo Power wasn’t just a bundle of previews and tips and news about video games that would define an embarrassing volume of childhoods. It was a kaleidoscope gaze into another realm.


The Gossip Gremlins had a small but memorable role in this. No doubt borrowed from Japanese publications, the Gremlins were fanciful critters who popped up at the bottom of Nintendo Power’s Pak Watch previews section. They spouted tidbits about games too early to have plentiful screenshots or solid details, giving the magazine a cute package for random information.

The Gremlins also offered some of the most creative art in Nintendo Power, as they weren't based on actual games. Unburdened by commercial demands, the artists cut loose and drew marvelously odd creatures from the heart of Japan’s late-1980 pop culture. And I picked out my favorites.
 
THE EYE KNIGHT 
January/February 1989 
If the Gossip Gremlins rarely came from real NES games, many were cut from the same aesthetics. The Eye Knight is a perfect example, familiar enough to make young readers wonder if they'd encountered such a creature in The Legend of Zelda, Dr. Chaos, or the inner reaches of Deadly Towers that few had the patience to reach.


An armored warrior with a huge Technodrome iris where his face should be? That’s almost too good of a design to waste on a blurb about Defender of the Crown—a blurb that’s half inaccurate, since the game isn't really about Robin Hood.


In fact, Nintendo Power liked the Eye Knight enough to use him (her?) twice. The creature shows up again in the March/April issue to mention some news about Hi-Tech. Too bad, Eye Knight. You deserved to be skewered by Link in Zelda II, not reduced to bandying Chessmaster rumors.


THE LIPS GOBLIN’S MOTORBOOT
May/June 1989
That large-lipped pink goblin seen in the Gossip Gremlins intro turned out to be their most frequent contributor. She (he?) showed up in later issues, often sporting binoculars or an excited expression, and my favorite is her appearance in a roller skate converted for highway use.


The footwear car underscores the whole “gremlin” theme of the characters. Most of these little gossip-mongers didn’t look like miniature monsters, but the shoemobile is a neat little creation, like something you’d see in Gremlins 3: The Revenge of George.

By the way, "that distinctive LJN style" might've been a diplomatic way of saying that the Back to the Future game looked like garbage. Which it was.


BORD THE MONSTER TRUCK 
July / August 1989 
The Gossip Gremlins seldom reflected the news they delivered, but every now and then the two converged in delightful ways. Meet Bord, a cumbersome vehicle who told Nintendo-addled kids all about a Bigfoot game. That game turned out awful, but Bord looks great.


He has personality well beyond his brand name, a legality-dodging joke you’ll see everywhere from Mystery Science Theater 3000 to anime series. I especially like how you can’t tell if he’s a personified truck or if he merely has a big red blob for a driver.


SPACESUIT ALIEN
September/October 1989
This insect-mawed alien told a simple joke: a creature sweltering inside a human costume inside an astronaut suit. And just to assure the kids that he wasn’t some Giger-ish abomination hatching grotesquely from a man's innards, there’s a zipper. Consider yourselves prepared for the insane conspiracies of the 1990s, children.


Double-disguised alien has nothing to with Bases Loaded II, apart from his possible experience with Bio-rhythms. Nor does the little parrot in a bicycle-plane have any relation to the news; in the full page, he doesn't even have a word balloon. But Nintendo Power liked him anyway.


SUSIE THE ATV CATGIRL
September/October 1989
Susie is among the few Gossip Gremlins to have an actual name. Outfitted with either strange headgear or a cat-ear band, she rides a four-wheeler with her logo on the side. The artist even drew some debris for her vehicle to toss around!


In fact, Susie and her ATV show much more detail than the usual Gossip Gremlin, making me wonder if she had a larger role in the Japanese magazine that spawned her. Was she a publication’s mascot or a recurring character? Or did her creator merely give Susie a few more touches in the hope that she’d catch on and get her own regular comic, perhaps even in the pages of Nintendo Power? If it’s the latter case, my sympathies go out to that artist. It would be a good ten years before manga catgirls drew demand outside of college anime clubs and furry conventions.

Perhaps Susie fell short of Nintendo Power stardom because she lacked a proper helmet. If she'd been a major character, how many kids might die convinced they could off-road in cat ears? Probably none, but Gossip Gremlins should set a good example.


THE CLAY CREATURE
November/December 1989
The Gossip Gremlins served two purposes. They let Nintendo Power cram in extra snippets of news, and they provided a cuddly deflection if those snippets were wrong. Readers would forgive errors more readily when they issued from helicopter turtles or a talking blob of ancient Play-Doh. That’s what happened with this freshly unsealed golem and his blurb about Asmik.


The clay figure presents Asmik’s new mascot, a sketchily drawn dinosaur named “Bronty.” That dopey pink flipper-dragon would pop up on the title screens of Asmik games like Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth and Conquest of the Crystal Palace, but his name isn’t Bronty. He’s known as Asmik-kun in Japan, and he’s called Boomer in the U.S. and in his Game Boy outing, Boomer’s Adventure in Asmik World. Nintendo Power used his earlier North American name, possibly cooked up by executives who hadn’t checked the copyrights on “Bronty.”

It didn’t make any difference, since Boomer’s Adventure was the only Boomer game Asmik released in the West. Sorry, Boomer. Not everyone can be a Captain Commando or a Blue Randar.


A TWO-WAY GOBLIN CAR
January/February 1990
A classic car driven by a pointy-eared Gremlin makes for a routine illustration in Nintendo Power…until one notices that there’s a second, identical Gremlin driving the car in the opposite direction. It’s a neat, entry-level Escherian detail for the readers who look closely.


Children of the Nintendo Era will note that the most intriguing Gossip Gremlins often discussed the worst games of the NES library. So it’s fitting that the goblin drivers spout off about the notoriously awful Total Recall game. That doesn’t matter, because they’re good enough to stand on their own. If the Gossip Gremlins ever became pull-and-go Happy Meal toys or gashapon trinkets, you’d see the double-driving imps right there alongside the Lips Goblin's shoe-car and Susie's quad bike.


THE U-FORCE KOBOLD
May/June 1990
Certain Gossip Gremlins got more interesting in retrospect. This caped dog-warrior isn’t a very creative design by the standards of 1990, but his attached word balloon is notable now. The U-Force, which opened like a suitcase to sense motion on two panels, was a flop among NES peripherals. While it’s compatible with many NES games, titles made specifically for the U-Force are elusive. U-Force Power Games, a collection of small diversions, never materialized, and this Nintendo Power kobold mentions two other games likely canceled after the U-Force flopped.


Appearing next to an actual Dragon Quest slime, the kobold speaks of a first-person fighting game and an RPG that used the U-Force’s motion sensors. It’s possible they were released without the U-Force support, but I can’t think of any NES game that matches this dog soldier’s description of the martial-arts game. The RPG could be a number of NES releases, but Broderbund, makers of the U-Force, didn’t release any such NES games after 1990. So that kobold left us something to ponder.


WINCHESTER BURGER
May/June 1990
In terms of rumor-mongering, no Gossip Gremlin tops this fanged sandwich. The critter itself is cutely horrific, a delight for those kids fresh off their eighth or ninth VHS viewing of Beetlejuice. But it’s what the burger says that’s important.


The monstrous double-stack chatters about the upcoming NES games from Mediagenic, which was Activision’s brand at the time. The first three games all came out, but what about the last one, a “Japanese action classic” called Winchester? Speculation runs rampant as to what this could be, whether a bungled translation or a port of some action game so obscure that even the Internet doesn’t remember it. Whatever it was, it’s the weirdest gossip these Gremlins ever found.


MEGA MERMAID 
September/October 1990 
I'll close with a personal favorite. This mermaid is utterly conventional in design and far from the pseudo-monstrous “gremlin” motif, but her word balloon delivered the most exciting Gossip I could imagine back in 1990.


I was a fervent member of the Nintendo cult as a kid, and Mega Man 2 was my favorite game. This Gossipy blurb was the first I’d heard of Mega Man 3, and I was enraptured. It promised 20 robots and named eight of them! Shadow Man! Needle Man! Magnet Man! Hard Man and Top Man didn’t sound so interesting, but Capcom could’ve called them Abscess Man and Long-Division Man and still dominated my dreams for months.

When Mega Man 3 actually arrived and had only eight new robot masters, I felt slightly cheated for a good minute or two. Then I got to enjoying it and forgot to tally up the level bosses. If I had, I might have realized that, technically, the game has over twenty major robots if you count the initial eight, the eight Doc Robots that recycle the Mega Man 2 cast, and the five stage leaders from Dr. Wily’s castle.

So you were right, Mega Mermaid. Sneaky, but right.

What became of the Gossip Gremlins? They disappeared from Nintendo Power by the end of 1990, swept aside in a design overhaul that gave the magazine a cleaner, more angular look. That trend continued in the years that followed, and the editors gradually cut down on goofier Japan-born doodles and original illustrations in favor of official artwork (though Terada stuck around long enough for a great Secret of Mana feature). By the late 1990s, Nintendo Power artwork was mostly commonplace and familiar. It looked more professional, but something was missing. And it wasn’t just the Gossip Gremlins.

Mega Man's Legacy

The Mega Man Legacy Collection is not the first time Capcom reissued and repackaged the initial six Mega Man titles, but it might be the most precise. Capcom and Digital Eclipse intend to preserve Mega Man’s initial outings just as they were on the NES, complete with slowdown and flicker and various filters. It’s an important step in game archiving and presentation, and the press releases and interviews liken it to the Criterion Collection and its artful packaging of notable movies. And Michael Bay’s Armageddon.

That’s a close comparison, but the Mega Man Legacy Collection lacks one essential piece of a Criterion set: a long and possibly misguided explanation of a film’s cultural importance. Capcom plans to release a physical version of the Legacy Collection next year, so there’s still time to outfit its instruction manual with an essay about Mega Man’s inner meanings.

And I have just the essay.

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Coping Mechanisms

Mega Man easily rose above the field. In the early generations of NES games, his introduction was a complex cartoon adventure among primitive arcade hand-me-downs and repetitive side-scrollers hard to flatter as original games. Here Mega Man threaded appealing music and memorable stages into a tale of a robot hero whose arsenal of weapons swelled as he defeated foes, each victory offering another toy for the player’s experimentation. It remains engaging, no matter the advancements of the years and other Mega Man titles.

Yet Mega Man's first game resonates as more than an amusing triumph. His is a story of survival in the face of a threat far fiercer than spiked pits or mad helicopter-robots. As he hops those pits or shoots those robots, Mega Man faces a life torn apart by childhood trauma.

The background for the original Mega Man  differs between the Japanese and American manuals, particularly when it comes to the villainous Dr. Wily and Mega Man’s creator, Dr. Light. One has it that Wily is Light’s jealous rival; another casts him as Light’s bitter former assistant. No matter the roots of his enmity, Wily’s goals are the same. He fosters a revolutionary army of evil machines, and he steals six of Light’s own robots to lead it. This leaves Light with only the domestic androids Rock and Roll to resist Wily, so Rock outfits himself for combat and becomes Mega Man.


With that, Mega Man’s family is shattered. Wily and Light are his parents; one manipulative and evil, the other supportive but ineffectual. So too are his siblings divided. Bomb Man, Cut Man, Guts Man, Fire Man, Elec Man, and Ice Man all side with Wily, forcing Mega Man into battle against them. He even steals from them, swiping each brother’s weapon and turning it against another.

The game grants the renegade robots no dialogue, but their names tell volumes. Like Mega Man, they’re the results of a broken home, an acrimonious parental split that makes them choose between an ambitious lunatic and an ineffectual sap for their father figure. Each deals with this fractured youth in a different manner, and all of them fail. Ice Man is frigid and distant. Fire Man is aggressive and temperamental. Elec Man is energetic and careless. Bomb Man is repressed and explosive. Cut Man is acerbic and angry (and possibly self-harming). Guts Man is large and overbearing. In real life, he’d devour steroids and drive an SUV the size of a battleship. In Mega Man, he just tosses rocks and goes down after a bomb or two strikes home.

Yet their coping methods aren’t entirely wrong. Mega Man learns as much as he makes his way through the game and gains a new weapon with each robot master he defeats. He completes his odyssey only by using those weapons when appropriate; the Guts Power might remove huge blocks, or the Ice Beam might freeze columns of fire. Mega Man needs the right response to whatever the world throws his way, and he finds it only by emulating his misguided brethren in small and appropriate doses.


Mega Man’s journey grows even more abstract after his kin fall by the wayside and Dr. Wily himself emerges in a keening UFO, his brows bobbing with paternal disdain. His fortress pits Mega Man against aggressive temptations and subconscious insecurities at each level’s end. The first stage summons a one-eyed giant block by block, its phallic implications obvious. The second pits Mega Man against an identical copy of himself. The third slips Mega Man into a watery, womblike chamber where he must eradicate ovum-shaped sentries. Then we come to Wily himself, who capitulates feebly once the clown-nosed chrysalis of his battle chariot is wrecked. He’s just as much a fragile pretender as the robot masters he turned evil.

Later Mega Man games became faster and looked better, expanding the lineups of robot masters to face and allies to recruit. Yet they never reclaimed the acute symbolism of the first Mega Man, where emotionally broken robots strut their armaments and are destroyed. Mega Man Powered Up, a PSP remake, puts a cuter face on the tragedy, making it possible to rescue the robots (in a telling stroke, one does this by using Mega Man’s default weapon). It’s a cuddly solution, but the original story holds no such optimism. As in the real world, far too many children are devastated by a manipulative and unloving parent, and only the shrewd and fortunate can make it through without exploding in a pixelpuff of misspent energy.

In the face of betrayal and abandonment, Mega Man survives. It isn’t easy. His first game may be the toughest of the six presented in this anthology. Yet he can make it through, and he need only look within for the right weapons. There’s real hope inside Mega Man, and it endures just as well as his games.

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That should do it. All I need is a byline: Kid Fenris is head of game criticism at kidfenris.com.

A Leap Ahead

I reviewed Lost Dimension earlier this month, and it was a tough game to judge. It has novel ideas and flows pretty well, but it just doesn’t make an impact. Hunting a traitor in your midst is intriguing. The battles are fast-paced and fun. On the whole, however, Lost Dimension can't summon the memorable characters or intricate approach that an interesting game really needs. It passes through like a cereal commercial.

Yet I’ll say this for Lost Dimension: it lets you stand on someone's head.


Technically, only one character in the game can do this. Lost Dimension puts you in command of an elite squad of psychic soldiers infiltrating the fortress of a world-dominating villain, and one of the special agents is Nagi Shishiouka. She’s a laconic and efficient woman who’s spent perhaps too much time as a military operative, and she glides around the battlefield in her impractically long combat dress. Position her just right, and Nagi can perch on a teammate’s head. Sadly, she can’t attack from that position. Nor can the other characters move with Nagi atop.

Standing on another character’s head is a feature too often ignored in video games. Plenty of action cavalcades let players leap momentarily upon an enemy, but it’s usually just a means of attacking. Seldom is it merely a neat trick to be enjoyed. And I think that’s a shame.


I first discovered this technique in Super Mario Bros. 2. The original Super Mario Bros. had Mario defeating enemies by hopping on them, but the second game, based on an unrelated Japanese title and overhauled for North America, gave its heroes the chance to jump on a foe and pick them up…or just use them for transportation. Mario, Luigi, Toad, and Princess Toadstool Peach can hitch a ride on just about every creature that isn’t a boss or a spiky Porcupo, and as a kid I liked to see just how far this symbiosis would take me in the game. We have YouTube channels dedicated to speedruns of classic games, but I'd like to see someone try to beat Super Mario Bros. 2, or even just a level of it, without touching the ground.

Another game with this underappreciated motif? Xenogears. It’s a big, crazily ambitious RPG so stuffed with ideas that it practically explodes. That’s why some people hate it. And yet among the medieval mecha wars and floating cities and past lives and godlike supercomputers and card games and walrus sailors there’s one idea that not even the most jaundiced Xenogears critic could knock: you can jump on someone’s head.


Unlike most of its RPG contemporaries, Xenogears lets its playable characters jump around. This leads to awkward platforming later on, but it also makes it possible to leap on many things: beds, tables, rocks, livestock…and other people. It can’t be done on everyone, but many of the average citizens you encounter are perfectly fine with a martial artist or skyborn solider stationed on their heads. Even better, some of them will walk around with you aboard. If only you could pick up and toss the townsfolk like Super Mario Bros. 2’s Shy Guys and Ninjis.


Even Chrono Trigger’s Lucca, making a pedagogic guest appearance, can host a Xenogears protagonist on her helmet. And then she apparently dies, because robots level the town and Lucca isn’t seen among the survivors. Perhaps she just ducked back through a time portal, but that’s a debate for another time.

Hopping on passersby is enough to make Xenogears a resplendent classic in my book. In fact, if anyone tells you that Xenogears is bad and that Chrono Cross is a better game, look ‘em square in the eye and ask if Chrono Cross lets you jump on someone’s head…or jump at all, for that matter. Then say “Despite our disagreement, I enjoy reading US Gamer, Mr. Jeremy Parish.”

I doubt that these three games are the only ones in which you can stand on someone, friend or foe, for no reason other than amusing yourself. And if there are more, I’d like to know about them. Wikipedia needs a page about this. Perhaps several.

Rygarfield: The Third Impact

I realize that I let Rygarfield fall behind schedule, as I've made only two strips in fifteen months. I’m not worried, though. All of the best webcomics and many of the terrible ones go on long, largely unexcused hiatuses, so it’s only natural that Rygarfield reflect its medium. And I think the third strip is the best yet!


Abysmal webcomics aside, making Rygarfield led me to appreciate the NES version of Rygar more and more. It already occupied a special place in my nostalgia, since it was the first NES game I saw nearly in its entirety. A neighbor kid had mastered most of it, and he spent one afternoon showing me the whole game up to the final boss. I was so fascinated by the sprawling scenery, the cool monsters, and the little secrets that I didn’t realize I never actually got to play the game. Rygar may as well have been a crude pixel movie for me.

More to the point, Rygar is highly impressive for a 1987 NES offering. Most of that period’s worthwhile games came straight from Nintendo themselves; the majority of third-party titles were simple arcade derivatives or crude side-scrollers. Yet Tecmo recast the boring arcade Rygar as a spacious NES quest that mixes overhead stages with horizontal stuff, offering the player RPG-ish leveling and an arsenal of neat accessories (well, the grappling hook is neat; the rest are rarely used). The creatures encountered are remarkably varied, and there’s a lot to explore as each new item opens up previously impassible areas, like some fantasy-themed Metroid. It even has one of the earliest floating castles in an NES game!

I’m surprised that Rygar didn’t become a series-launching cult classic along the lines of Castlevania or Mega Man. Tecmo tried a PlayStation 2 remake, but it doesn’t count.

No matter. I’m sure that Rygar will see a parasitic resurgence once Rygarfield lands itself a movie deal, a low-budget CG cartoon, and fields of merchandise. Maybe someone will make bootleg T-shirts that show Rygarfield peeing on, say, a Sega Master System.