Little Things: Totally Rad


If anyone tells you that story doesn’t matter to a video game, you’ll find the perfect counterargument in an NES side-scroller called Totally Rad. Jaleco’s American branch took a bland Famicom title named Magic John and remodeled its plot into a parody of the early ‘90s surfer-dude patois that everyone mocked and imitated at some point in between the first two Bill & Ted movies and Wayne’s World. The revamped dialogue turns a standard-issue game into a gnarly, badical, most righteous zeitgeist fragment, and it’s the only reason anyone really remembers Totally Rad.

Jaleco's American branch knew what they had with Totally Rad, and they knew it needed to stand out in some manner besides gameplay. That’s because Totally Rad largely just coasts through the basics of a decent action title of the NES era. It’s a perfect example of Jaleco’s proclivity for merely adequate games and developer Aicom's varying levels of quality. Protagonist Jake has a chargeable shot and magic spells that range from healing to shapeshifting, and yet the level design is sometimes tedious and the control just a little more sluggish than the norm. It's not total in its radness, but it's still worth a play-through if you’re exploring B-list NES side-scrollers, particularly those inspired by Mega Man. Then again, you could always just watch the tubular cutscenes or page through the faithful instructions.

There’s one more thing that I like about Totally Rad. One very minor thing. 
The game’s bosses are large and freakish, ranging from a muppetlike punk-rocker mutant corncob to a final boss with suggestively placed cannons. And the real impressive part? Each of them has a life meter represented by unique icons. The fish has little fish heads. The eye creature has little eyes. The corn-rocker has whatever the heck its face is supposed to be.

It’s a truly irrelevant detail, but I find myself impressed that the designers went through the trouble of creating personalized health bars for each boss. Most games from the NES period up through the present day use generic readouts for a creature’s health, if they show it at all, but Jaleco wanted every boss in Totally Rad to get a specific countdown method, and they didn’t care if nobody noticed. 
I’m sure Totally Rad isn’t the only (or even the first) game to employ such a boss-fight novelty, but I’m drawing a blank when I try to think of where else I’ve seen this idea. Some brawlers, like Konami's Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles outings, have bosses change color. Other games let bosses change form or speed up their attacks. But what else beyond Totally Rad really bothered to decorate each boss encounter with a specialized life meter?

That detail sums up Totally Rad and even Jaleco at large. It’s a humdrum effort in some ways, but play it through and you’ll find a few suggestions that someone really cared about it at some point, either in the self-aware localization or the little faces in a health meter. And then you can continue your tour of Mega Man-esque NES games by playing Whomp ‘Em or Power Blade 2 or The Krion Conquest.

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