Shinobi (忍)- Sega Mark III

Sega were king of the arcade for most of the coin-op format’s history, and their console efforts often attempted to leverage their arcade success into home success. While this would eventually lead them to release one of their arcade boards as a console (the Mega Drive is basically a cut-down Sega-16 board), on their first two consoles it meant ports.

And so we have the Mark III release of Shinobi.

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It’s a late enough Mark III release to have the Master System co-branding.

Shinobi is a basic 2D side scrolling action game, which was already a fairly recognisable format by 1987. It stars Joe Musashi, on a mission to stop bad guys who are kidnapping children from his ninja clan.

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You move along the stage, attacking bad guys with swords and ninja stars while freeing the kidnapped kids. The game’s gimmick is multiple ‘planes’ of action, and at certain points in stages you can switch between planes with a giant ninja jump. Luckily the bad guys are nice enough to pause and wait for your jump to complete (it’s really supposed to be a sort of ninja movie slow-motion effect I think). Otherwise controls are decent, solid but standard.

It’s broken into five missions of three or four stages each, with a boss at the end of each mission. Along the way you can power up your life bar and weapons, swapping out ninja stars for bombs and a knife, and your sword for nunchucks and eventually what appears to be a Castlevania-style chain whip.

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Some later stages can get quite frustrating, introducing bottomless pits and annoying enemy placements. Enemies get weirder and more supernatural as you progress, including some zombie-ninjas and demons.

Bosses are quite good, and largely rely on you working out attack patterns and counter-attacking. With one exception – a giant wall of hindu (Vishnu?) statues. After a million attempts I finally worked out the only solution was to spam it with knives, which worked. Frustrating.

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There’s also a very difficult bonus stage once a mission, where you throw ninja stars at two planes of ninjas, shooting gallery style.

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Graphically it’s decent, but nothing special. Pretty middle of the road for the Mark III. Some incredibly strange palette choices make some parts, especially the first stage, look quite garish, but other stages are fine.

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What is up with these colours?

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The Mark III version is a reasonable interpretation of the arcade game. The arcade game is a much faster, more fluid experience, whearas the home version is a slower and more methodical. There are less enemies, but despite the very different feel, the levels have been recreated quite faithfully.

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The graphics have also taken a hit from the 16-bit arcade game, but the bright Mark III colours arguably make it more appealing in parts than the drab original.

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One disappointing element is a common one for Mark III games – small cartridge size. The Mark III had some design flaws that meant it got less graphical tiles from the same amount of ROM than most consoles, and on top of that Sega often chose cheap small cart sizes. What this means is only a couple of tunes for the whole game (much like Makai Retsuden). And what happens when you beat the final boss, the Masked Ninja?

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You get this amazing ending:

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Wow, what a reward.

The tunes at least have FM instrument support, and sound pretty cool if you have an FM Unit.

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Overall it’s a pretty nice early ninja game, and pretty fun, even if incredibly difficult at points.

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Smash Ping Pong (スマッシュピンポン) – The Secret Konami Disk System game

There’s one Konami game on Famicom Disk you probably didn’t know about – Smash Ping Pong (スマッシュピンポン).

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Originally released as ‘Konami’s Ping Pong’ in the arcades, Nintendo published the Famicom Disk System version as part of the Famicom Disk launch library. As such, the FDS version is not part of the Konami catalogue, though it is Konami branded on the disk and title screen, and it maintains the official Konami artwork from the arcade and MSX releases.

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It’s a pretty nifty and quite realistic take on Table Tennis. The simple graphics bely a quite sophisticated and challenging control scheme and physics system.

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Unlike most tennis-based games, you don’t hit the ball with A or B and move around with the d-pad. B throws the ball up for service, and A changes between forehand and backhand. Your disembodied hand moves around automatically to meet the ball. All hits are done with the d-pad left, right and up, and the timing controls the angle and power.

It reminds me a lot of Wii Sports Tennis, released 20 years later.

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It’s a very faithful translation of the arcade game, the biggest change being he swapping out of Konami’s Pentaru (from Antarctic Adventure and Parodius) for Donkey Kong in the crowd! Disk-kun (the FDS mascot) also appears in the title screen in his first ever digital appearance.

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Rollergames – NES

Rollergames belongs to an interesting sub-category: Japanese developed games unreleased in their homeland.

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Why does this sometimes happen? Perhaps the domestic market for that type of game had dried up during its development, but the game was still suitable for western release. Or the Japanese version was cancelled at the last minute because of a clash in release schedules.

But sometimes games were specifically developed for western markets, often based on a western-only licenced property. Such as Rollergames.

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These games are interesting because they offer an insight into how Japanese publishers viewed American audiences. In Rollergames case, it appears Konami management showed the developers the source material, and said ‘make an action adventure game from this’.

Rollergames is based on a professional wrestling-esque dramatised fictional version of roller derby. Apparently it was a big deal for its single season in the US, but non-Americans would just assume it was a purely original Konami title, particularly given the arcade-style content.

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The gameplay is a unique mixture of beat-em-up and action platformer. Taking some cues from Double Dragon and Konami’s own Ninja Turtles games, and combining that with speedy momentum-based movement, isometric platforming, and Konami’s own brand of tricks and traps. Ultimately I’d describe it as a beat-em-up action platformer on wheels.

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I consider it the sister game to another Konami release heavily adapted from an external source: Bad n Rad: Skate or Die on the Game Boy. Similarly based on an existing property (in this case Electronic Arts’ sub-standard Skate or Die series of games, which Konami published on the NES), like Rollergames it deviated from its source material so much as to be basically a unique property. Bad n’ Rad is a sort of racing action platformer, and has a very similar setting and feel to Rollergames. I wouldn’t be surprised if they had designers in common.

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Rollergames has a setting and story that takes the basic branding and teams from the (nominally) sports-based show, and throws them into a standard videogame fictional world. A bad guy has taken the head of the league hostage, pick a Rollergames team and set out over a variety of themed stages to defeat bad guy.

You choose a team at the start of each round.

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T-birds – Chunky fat dudes (I’ve now learned based on a particular fan favourite character)

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Hot Flash – Pink clad females

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Rockers – Axl Rose lookalikes

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T-birds guy is slow to accelerate but powerful, Hot Flash girl is fast but weak, and Rockers dude is the Goldilocks selection. I always choose Hot Flash because quicker control is more valuable in platforming (which are the most difficult parts of the game), and who can resist 80s girls in hot pink?

Most stages are centred around an evil team, with a set theme and featuring the team leader as the end boss. Main levels are broken in two, and you get an energy bar refill at a mid-stage checkpoint. They’re a mix of platforming, beat em up, and traps.

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The alternate stages are constantly moving highway stages, where a variety of traps appear to try and stop you making it to the next stage. These are very similar to the skateboarding levels in Konami’s Turtles games.

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The beat em up elements feel a lot like Turtles. Fast and smooth, but relatively loose and forgiving hit detection. Once you work out the exact angle to attack enemies from, you feel pretty powerful.

Bosses are atypically well designed for a beat-em-up. They follow unique patters of attack, more like a good action platformer boss than your typical ‘big brute’ fighter boss. While they are cheap at times, you can see how you could technically not take a hit with a perfect run. More variety than normal is afforded by the premise, so not all bosses are just guys to beat up.

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The platforming has two things going against it. The isometric-ish/3D movement (sometimes referred to as ‘belt scrolling’ because you can move up and down the ‘belt’ with perspective at an angle) makes judging jump distances much more difficult than in a standard 2D space.

You are also on wheels, and have momentum to deal with. In a sense the whole game plays similarly to an ice world in a Mario game, all slip and slide. Combine the perspective with the momentum and it’s a recipe for frustration for those without quick fingers. Add to this banked surfaces (which feature heavily in a later stage) and speed and this becomes a tough game to beat.

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But it’s not unfair or impossible. It will require level memorisation and quick reflexes, but all traps are passable every time.

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Presentation wise, it’s classic high-quality Konami. The graphics are fantastic, Konami’s trademark ‘faceless’ characters are big and well defined. Detailed colourful environments, a rock solid engine with basically no sprite flicker, and some excellent parallax effects on the highway stages mean this is a top-shelf NES game graphically.
Sound effects are good standard NES stuff, and the accompaniment is a series of excellent catchy tunes (by one of the Castlevania series’ composers) which perfectly match the solid game mechanics. The music also has a very ‘Konami Turtles’ feel.
Rollergames is a hidden gem on the NES.

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Contra (コントラ Kontora) – Famicom

How good is the original Famicom Contra?

Kontura_2118 So good even the cut-down American version and robotomised Australian/Euro versions are still awesome.

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What is it that makes Contra so great?

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The whole idea is off the charts awesome from the start. Rambo and Dutch (Arnold’s character from Predator) vs the Aliens from Alien. Much like how Castlevania was a pastiche of classic monster movies (Dracula, Frankensten, Mummy Man etc) Contra is based on an 80s dream movie we never got.

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Lush jungles (apparently New Zealand), futuristic enemy bases, a subterranean alien lair – so many classic 80s macho-man settings are covered. And it looks fantastic, particularly the Famicom version (over the NES versions) with more effects, animated trees in the jungle and snow field levels, and animated alien squirming in the final stage. The music is packed with ‘big action movie’ tunes that could have been written by Jerry Goldsmith himself, and the sound effects are suitably chunky and expressive.

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The Fami version also has cut-scenes and a rather cool Ghouls n Ghosts style overworld map.

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Of course ultimately it’s the killer gameplay that makes it an all time classic. Taking shooter and platfomer and melding them into a cohesive whole for the first time.

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It has literally perfect controls. I wish every game on the Famicom had such amazing controls. It’s satisfying just to move and shoot, and you always know a death was your own fault.

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Enemy and boss designs are tuned to offer a pitch-perfect challenge. The variety of tasks, settings, and ideas was top of the industry at the time of release.

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The arcade game was very good, but the team that ported it to the Famicom are the ones who got it most right. The more colourful, tighter controlled home version is one of the rare times that a home port eclipses an arcade original.

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The Contra series unfortunately didn’t last as long as it should have as a top-tier franchise. Two equally excellent sequels (Super Contra and Contra Spirits) and a very good side game (Game Boy Contra, known as Operation C in the U.S.) got the formula right, but after that a series of missteps basically killed the brand.

A pretty bad NES spin-off (Contra Force, which was originally an unrelated project known as Arc Hound) started the trend, and was followed by a Mega Drive spin-off (Contra: Hard Corps) which was good, but in my opinion messed with the formula too much. Fiddly controls, drab settings, bad overly crunchy sound effects, and a techno soundtrack that ruined the 80s action movie feel.

Four terrible-to-mediocre games followed on PS1/PS2, all of which continued to misunderstand what made the first four games great. The first PS2 game (Contra: Shattered Soldier) was the closest to understanding Contra, but still wrecked the formula with mushy controls (likely due to the game’s 2.5D presentation which almost never works well), a stupid cycling weapon system and a lame ’emo teenager’ techno-metal soundtrack and presentation style.

It was’t until the brilliant Contra 4 for Nintendo DS in 2007 that we finally got another game that got the formula correct again, and was truly worthy of the Kontora name.

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But here’s to the original Famicom game. It has been equalled, but has never been topped in its genre, even 27 years later.

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The Japanese version is one of the games that came with a collector card. I finally got a copy with the card recently of a decent price, so now I’m up to 9/20!

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Dragon Wang (ドラゴン-ワン) and Makai Retsuden (魔界列伝)/Kung Fu Kid – Sega Mark III

This one is a weird little series.

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I was introduced to Kung Fu Kid when my family rented a Sega when I was young. It wasn’t the first console game I ever played, but it was the first one I ever played in my own house (i.e. the first game I played for hours and hours in a single night).

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The ‘amazing’ western box art…

It’s a fun little ‘Kawaii’ rendition of the classic Kung Fu Master template (kick waves of bad guys and move up levels) starring a Chinese kung fu master called Wang. It adds in a dash of platformer with a much higher jump, more variety to the settings (not just a tower) and quite nice colourful graphics.

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Years later I found out it was actually called Makai Retsuden (Demon World Story) in Japan and was a sequel to an SG1000 game called Dragon Wang(!). Thanks to eBay and Yahoo Auctions I now have my own copies of both, and it’s time for a write-up.

Dragon Wang (ドラゴン-ワン)

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It turns out Sega were quite accurate in their translations, and the original game was named after Wang.

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It came on the SG1000 card format

The title of Kung Fu Kid now makes more sense, as Dragon Wang is very much a straightforward clone of Irem’s Kung Fu Master, with a tower to climb, full of bad guys to kick. This format was itself based on the unfinished Bruce Lee movie Game of Death, hence ’Dragon’ in the title. As with most action games on the primitive SG1000 hardware, the graphics are quite simple, the scrolling is choppy, and it is very difficult to progress.

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You fight through waves of regular bad guys, and on each level you pick a fight against a couple of bosses, like nunchucks guy here.

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It’s pretty limited and clunky, but it has a nice rhythm in the way bad guys attack, and can be fun in shorter bursts.

Makai Retsuden (魔界列伝)

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I love it how the ‘Gold Cartridge’ is white…

While the original game was a pretty straightforward kung fu romp, For the Mark III sequel, Sega got weird, and it’s a ghost/zombie martial arts game. After saving the day in the first game, Wang could afford to relax and put a shirt on. But an ancient evil named Mandala has awoken and brought with him an undead army.

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Instead of nunchuck guys, you now fight various Chinese-themed ghosts and zombies and possessed creatures. As a kid I missed all this and just thought it was standard Japanese weirdness, like a Mario game. The game was released in the wake of Mario, and you can see Nintendo’s influence here – jumping is now a much bigger part of the game. Wang has one of the highest jumps in 8-bit games.

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The first two levels are straight left to right affairs, but after that it returns mostly to the more claustrophobic ’tower climb’ structure of the first game.

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The graphics are great, the music catchy, the mechanics solid and fun, and like most Sega games of this era it’s a mean challenge. Overall a top Mark III effort.

More screens:

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Miracle of Arumana (アルマナの奇跡 Arumana no Kiseki) – Famicom Disk System

Of all the Konami Famicom/FDS games that didn’t leave Japan, this one is my favourite.

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In the same way Castlevania was inspired by old monster movies and fantasy novels (including the Frazetta-esque art), and Contra was inspired by Aliens and Rambo,  Miracle of Arumana is pretty much Indiana Jones. It’s so close in fact it even seems possible development began on the basis of gaining the licence at some point. I mean, look at these screenshots:

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There’s even a mine cart level

 The plot is a slightly more cartoony version of Temple of Doom – the miraculous Arumana stone has been stolen from a remote (presumably Indian) village by some powerful supernatural force, and without its power the people are helpless against the evil. The land is ruined and the peaceful locals have been turned to stone.

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You play as a younger, more Japanese looking Indy, who has come across this injustice during his adventures and sets out on a quest to defeat the evil force and restore the Armana stone to its rightful place.

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It’s a jolly little platfomer with a fun (if not particularly accurate to the laws of physics) grappling hook mechanic. The hook feature is nowhere near as involved as the one in Bionic Commando, but definitely adds to the experience, allowing interesting navigation possibilities around the levels.

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What sets it apart are the graphics and music. It’s in the top tier of that era’s Famicom games graphically, with that fantastic slightly gritty Konami look (including the trademark ‘faceless’ characters). The music is in my opinion literally the best use of the Disk System’s extra sound channels. This is almost Akumajou Densetsu (Castlevania 3) level here, among the absolute best on the Famicom. It uses the louder extra wave channel for a ‘horn’ type sound, for an 8-bit version of a classic  adventure movie score.

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Promotional flyer

It’s also a vastly superior Indiana Jones game to any of the official 8-bit Indy games. In fact it’s the best Indy game on any consoles at all until the excellent Nintendo 64 version of Indiana Jones and the Infernal Machine.

Here's the collector card that came with this copy
Here’s the collector card that came with this copy

An English translated version is out there with the title ‘Miracle of Almana’. While that is legitimate translation of アルマナの奇跡 without context, it’s clearly incorrect. The product code of the game is ‘ARM’ – including the R means it was meant to be translated ‘Arumana’ or simply ‘Armana’.

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This is my sealed copy.

This is an amazing game. If this had made it to the west, I’m sure it could have been a long running series, just like Castlevania and Metal Gear. But perhaps Konami were afraid of Lucasfilm’s lawyers.

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Full colour manual with that classic Konami manual art.
Full colour manual with that classic Konami manual art.

More screens:

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I first leaned about this game about 15 years ago on Tsr’s NES archive. The piece is still alive today, check it out!