Ardy Lightfoot's Dark Side

It’s tempting to swiftly set aside Ardy Lightfoot. You might give it the same fleeting glance you’d give any other semi-obscure Super NES action game with an animal protagonist, side-scrolling stages, and a higher level of difficulty than it might be worth. Yet there’s an uncommon sense of ambition about this one. The opening titles promise “A Team Ardy Film,” as though its overalled fox hero is a cinematic star in the making, and the cutscenes get surprisingly detailed as he gathers ancient crystals and contends with a rival treasure hunter, a wicked monarch, and some vicious level bosses.

One might assume that Ardy Lightfoot is all harmless, but the game takes a grim turn in the sixth stage. The ninja-like Catry appears in the previous levels, swiping a forest village’s gem and tying innocent citizens to trees. Ardy and his blobbish sidekick Pec navigate the wood, curiously without freeing a single hostage, and confront the feline kunoichi in a maddening duel of switches and spring-loaded boxing gloves.

Upon defeat Catry begs for mercy and flies off with a gem. Ardy pursues, and both of them are swallowed by a giant Arrakis-grade worm. Seriously, there's a big Dune desert creature in the middle of a cutesy Super NES platformer. Ardy makes his way through the depths of the beast’s digestive system to find Catry and the jewel.

Here the game differs with its region. In the Japanese release, all that remains of Catry is a pile of bones. Despite her recent ingestion, she’s already been gruesomely skeletonized by acid dripping from the roof of the creature’s stomach. Ardy is distressed not a whit beyond his brief stock exclamation point of surprise, and he carries on after cheerfully nabbing the crystal. 

In the North American and European versions of Ardy Lightfoot, Catry’s fate is less clear. She’s lying there, unmoving but undigested, and there’s no acid falling on her. Ardy once again seizes his coveted gewgaw and bounds along, not bothering to check if Catry’s alive or not. This is the last the player sees of her.

It’s a curious moral shift. The Japanese version renders her demise unsettling, but there’s clearly nothing Ardy can do to help. The other releases of the game try to soften the scene but actually make it worse. With Cathy’s condition left vague, Ardy is now a cold-blooded bastard. Sparing not a glance to see if Catry survived, he leaves her to presumably perish within the worm’s innards. 

Strangely, the English versions of the game also remove any captive villagers. It was a potentially upsetting sight for young players, especially when Ardy didn’t rescue them, but excising that plot point makes Catry even less deserving of her fate. Her only offense is an awkward boss battle, but that's more the fault of the game's controls.  

Of course, all of this is blatant rebellion against the cliches of the genre. If Ardy had a typical action hero’s code of honor, he would rescue Catry no matter what harm she had visited upon him and others. This act of kindness would in turn drive her to question her loyalties and perhaps, at the author’s discretion, develop romantic inclinations or a respectful rivalry (or both) toward the protagonist. But Ardy Lightfoot is unencumbered by such strokes of mercy.

Granted, a death such as this isn’t uncommon for generally lighthearted stories. Children’s films occasionally delight in opaquely bumping off villains under the supposition that they deserve it, and even casual side characters, like a conceited squirrel from The Enchanted Journey, might meet unpleasant fates. Yet the protagonists usually react with appropriate shock and horror. Ardy and Pec just merrily bound along. Many years before people questioned the tonal clash of Nathan Drake’s quips and his violent methods in the Uncharted games, Ardy was a cheerful adventurer who left a helpless foe to die. Let’s just hope it was over quickly for Catry. 

Then again, things were over quickly for Ardy Lightfoot. There were no sequels or remakes, and the game gets discussed so seldom that I can’t locate interviews or developer insights regarding ASCII’s intentions for a possible series. Team Ardy never got to make another film. 

Today Ardy's quest is a high-priced curiosity, though not an easy game to enjoy. The stage design is often clever and the characters boast more personality than usual, but it's all burdened by frustrating gameplay. It fact, Ardy's methods of tossing Pec and stomping enemies resemble the awkward moves that Vic Tokai used in Kid Kool, Magical Hat, and Psycho Fox. Perhaps they were an inspiration in several ways, since Ardy is both a fox and a psychopath.

Dive Alert: Sub Average

Dive Alert keeps underappreciated company. It’s on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, a fantastic handheld system unfairly cut down when the pachinko monsters of Azure bought SNK and canceled their projects. It’s the work of Sacnoth, a short-lived developer that crafted a number of intriguing, creative RPGs. And Dive Alert is a game that really wants to tell a story, a game that sometimes wants to fight submarine battles, and a game that doesn’t care if the player might get bored.

The first moments of Dive Alert impress, introducing some appealing pixel-anime characters, high-tech ships, and a mecha who looks a lot like Giant Robo. We learn that the world is now mostly ocean, continents and civilizations long since submerged in disaster. Bellicose Automan machines roam the seas, while humans scrape by and trade rumors of Terra, the last remaining dry land. One such human is either Matt or Becky, depending on which version of Dive Alert you play, and the unfolding quest involves rebel factions, overcontrolling computers, and a few conspiracies. It’s a setting seen in Waterworld, The Incredible Tide, Blue Sub No. 6, The Drowned World, Future Boy Conan, Tide Line Blue, Mega Man Legends, and other tales stretching back over a century, but it’s one of those science fiction standards I never really mind—perhaps because, given our current environmental state, it’s so plausible. 

One thing becomes clear very early: Dive Alert does not care about quick pacing. Handheld games tend to be brisk in their setups and lenient in their storytelling, accessible enough to pick and up and put down when subway commutes or lunch breaks demand. Dive Alert isn’t having that. The player sits through a lengthy conversation between Matt or Becky and a Navicom, detailing their motivations, mechanics, and purposes behind their submarine forays. It’s all familiar ground, though the illustrations of the characters are detailed for a handheld game of this vintage. 

Soon it’s time for the first submarine battle. And then it’s time to ask “Wait, THIS is the gameplay?”

The combat takes place on a sonar display, with your ship a mere triangle and the enemy Automan vessels mere dots around it. This is not an optional viewpoint, like the map screen in an RPG. The game fully expects you to play out submarine duels in a rotating grid that’s just as slow as an undersea battle might be in real life. It brings to mind Silent Service and other simulations more than the more active combat of In the Hunt, Sqoon, or Sub Rebellion (or the unreleased Mariner’s Run). While there’s something to be said for authenticity, it’s an approach unexpected after the game’s graphically stylish cutscenes. 

A simple perspective might help these submarine battles move quickly, but Dive Alert isn’t having that. Your ship turns slowly, launches torpedoes slowly, and evades attack slowly—or not at all. It’s strategic and careful and…well, tedious. Landing hits isn’t particularly satisfying when it’s just a matter of seeing one dot collide with a small blob, and there’s only some minor claustrophobic tension when your own sub is threatened. 

There’s more to the battles, of course. Each dive can reach one of four different depths of the ocean, and your ship gains new weapons and slight speed upgrades (which vary across the two different versions). If you’re willing to put yourself fully into Dive Alert’s clutches, to invest yourself in the overwritten cutscenes, explore the extensive customization of your submersible, and imagine dramatic implications for those geometrically bland sonar-screen clashes, Dive Alert has some meat to it. 

The story goes routine places in its twists, but it at least has some twists. The long-winded cutscenes are handsomely rendered and devoted to showing off characters, from the protagonist and their Navicom to the various merchants and rebels, including a classic Yatterman trio of pseudo-villains. And even though the dialogue is overwritten for what it conveys, it's sometimes a welcome break from that dinky little navigation screen. 

That awkward gameplay viewpoint is puzzling in light of Dive Alert’s generally striking looks elsewhere. The cutscenes are full of expressive portraits and nice background scenery. There’s a multitude of submarines, from robotic whale-ships to old-fashioned U-boats, that you can commandeer (and never see on the playing field as anything but a triangle). There’s even a bonus shooting gallery with graphics far better than the main gameplay. 

It's enough to make one theorize that Sacnoth trimmed down Dive Alert for either time or memory limitations. The game’s not very long in terms of actual missions, and the intro’s above-mentioned Giant Robo analogue apparently doesn’t even show up. Perhaps the gameplay really is just a sonar side-screen meant to accompany a richer and more detailed vision of submarine warfare—one that the developers never finished. 

Dive Alert’s multiplayer mode allows battles over link cables for the American and European releases of the game, but the Japanese version sports the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s wireless feature, allowing for limited online play. It’s an intriguing concept that unfortunately couldn’t get approved outside of Japan, though it’s hard to imagine the game’s slow combat enticing hordes of players.

One can’t call Dive Alert the most boring game on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, not when there’s a load of Aruze pachislot games to despise for several reasons (they KILLED SNK, dammit). Yet it’s very much a slow and stubborn game, one that makes you watch it and play it exactly how it wants, no matter the consequences. 

This would be a habit that Sacnoth showed in other games. Founded by composer Hiroki Kikuta and some other Square expats, the developer tried hard to cut its own path. Dive Alert was their debut release, but their first big showcase was Kikuta’s creation Koudelka, a gothic RPG-adventure that sought lavish production values and an older audience with its tale of strangers gathered at a haunted monastery in 1898. It’s also another case of Might Have Been. Koudelka artfully presents its gothic trappings and shows some deft storytelling with its characters and voice acting (the title heroine is both refreshingly sharp and amusingly selfish), but its gameplay is divided between clumsy Resident Evil controls and unnecessarily frequent RPG battles. Even so, it’s a fascinating creation and a companion to the more accomplished Shadow Hearts games, and it’s a shame that Kikuta, who left Sacnoth not long after Koudelka, never got the chance to revisit it. 

Sacnoth’s other Neo Geo Pocket Color outing would be Faselei!, a mecha strategy-RPG with some astounding anime aesthetics—including its own theme song. It’s a much more approachable and solid game than Dive Alert, though again Sacnoth marches to a different beat: players guide combat robots by making a list of commands, detailing every step they take on the screen. It’s novel but more cumbersome than a familiar, direct control method would be. At least the mecha look like actual machines of war and not just dots on a grid. 

Back to Dive Alert. If it’s not among the greats in the Neo Geo Pocket Color’s library, it’s one of the most curious experiments there. On a system with lots of portable (and usually excellent) versions of quick-fix arcade games, here’s a dialogue-heavy and languidly paced submarine adventure that makes few concessions for the player. A quicker, prettier combat screen would have done wonders, but Dive Alert instead seeks a limited audience. And that’s precisely what it found.

The Strange Depths of Dig: A Journey Into the Earth

It’s always a relief to rediscover some bizarre cartoon you vaguely remember from your childhood. Beyond nostalgia, there’s a comfort to finding out that you didn’t merely imagine it, that this curious little movie or TV special existed and that it was, in fact, almost as weird as you remember. 

Dig: A Journey into the Earth is like that. It’s one of those short, obscure cartoons by talent better known for other things. Writers and directors John and Faith Hubley are animation legends whose accomplishments stretch from Disney films to Oscar-winning shorts to Mr. Magoo. The music is from Quincy Jones, whose 70-year career includes film scores, Michael Jackson albums, Oscar-winning movies, and far too many achievements to sum up here. Dig is a remote find next to all of that: CBS commissioned it as an educational TV special back in 1972, and it apparently re-aired only a few times afterwards.

I saw Dig in the first or second grade, many years after it debuted, and I assume my teacher had taped one of its repeat airings. This is a practice alien to schoolchildren these days, when we can summon anything by streaming or downloads. In the 1980s and 1990s, however, we were still at the mercy of whatever was at hand, so teachers might go to the school library and pull out VHS tapes or film strips of much older vintage. 

Resourceful educators also recorded kids’ programs off TV at home just so they’d have a stockpile of semi-instructive material and holiday entertainment for years to come. Whenever teachers put on a video for the class, we might see some recent Garfield or Charlie Brown TV special...or perhaps some older selection like Nelvana’s A Cosmic Christmas or a stop-motion rendition of Dick Whittington that I’ve never been able to identify. Comment below if you have any leads on that one.

Ostensibly all about geology, Dig follows a city kid named Adam and his dog Bones as they meet a talking rock called...well, Rocco and plunge deep into the Earth. On their trek Adam learns all about earthquakes, mountains, time periods, and other geological concepts while Bones sniffs around and nibbles anything that holds still. Rocco’s family members Igneous, Sedimentary, and Metamorphic deliver songs about their specific rock types, whereafter Bones comes unstuck in time and requires rescue across millions of years. 

It's all supposed to be palatable for kids, with fun songs and friendly creatures. Yet Dig is loaded with the abstract, intriguing animation choices favored often by the Hubleys—and by semi-educational 1970s cartoons in general. Characters move with halting, sketchlike mannerisms that make even a modern city look a little strange. There are slow, haunting pans across fossils and strata, accompanied by Jones’ eclectic and eerie background music. The various talking rocks are grotesque just as often as they’re cute, and there’s the constant feeling that Adam and Bones are treading into places they definitely shouldn’t be.

The educational aspects of Dig actually add to the effect. Instead of reciting facts and labored explanations, Rocco and his fellow stone creatures deliver lessons with a rapid, occasionally metaphorical tone that makes it easy to miss such details about geological eras and whatnot. It's just as disorienting as the animation. Then again, it's refreshing to find children’s educational cartoons that challenge their audiences to pay close attention, rewatch them, and maybe do a little extra reading about sediments and erosion.

That’s why Dig stayed with me. It was much more abstract than the Disney films or TV cartoons I commonly saw, and it even surpassed something like Watership Down, which at least has realistic rabbits in between its apocalyptic imagery (and which John Hubley was originally going to direct). This made Dig strange and dreamlike to me. It didn’t feel as safe as other animated specials, not because of anything that happened in it but rather because I didn’t know the limitations of its world. There was a vague trepidation about something bizarre or frightening lying around the corner, even in this TV-appropriate lesson about stalactites. 

Animation is unique in that ability to disquiet. Live-action creations can be beautifully surreal, but anything with flesh-and-blood actors carries unspoken assurances, especially to a child. We learn from an early age that these are actors and special effects, and no matter what happens during the story, the players are unharmed. Cartoons don’t carry that same protection. Their characters don’t exist in the real world, and so their peril seems strangely more real. Bambi’s mother and Optimus Prime and poor Violet (from Watership Down) didn’t shuffle off the set once their death scenes wrapped up shooting. They lived only on the screen, and they died there as well.

Not that Dig is even remotely harsh. Adam rescues his dog, and they emerge into the mundanity of the city with Rocco and a greater understanding of what’s in the ground below them. Of course, the experience of being around living, talking rocks might warp a kid’s perceptions to the point where they see even a broken sidewalk as the mangled corpse of a sapient being, but that’s the price of cartoon personification. 

You can watch the entirely of Dig here. If you don’t care to sit through all 25 minutes, its vaguely ominous atmosphere is embodied well at the 14:30 mark, when an adorable little dog vanishes and a malformed limestone golem cackles about it.

Dig now seems quaint to me, since I’m older and cynical and much more familiar with its native era of animation. Even so, I respect Dig for unnerving me just enough that I'd remember it and track it down as an adult. Heck, maybe it’s the reason I like Wurm: Journey to the Center of the Earth so much.

Dynamite Headdy's Horrors

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He knew it was wrong.

He did it anyway.

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

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

Important Freeon-Leon News

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ufouria: Bring Back Freeon-Leon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vegas Dream, Analyzed

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five Notable Unused Enemies

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Final Fantasy VI's Jump Scare

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NES Games We Hated

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

You can chalk up some of that to the merciless grip that Nintendo had 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, their inventive concepts, 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 air force 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 that kids actually wanted. This meant that my every classmate 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 eight 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 kids spent so much time playing video games. They’d finally understand and appreciate all the time and effort children 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 kids 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.