Time once again for another Monday helping of the Virtual Console. Fortunately, we're on a "good week," so the games are pretty good. I don't think we're going to be seeing anything as golden as the Christmas releases, but we're probably entering into a better phase for the VC. So far, we've mostly seen the same big-name classics that always appear and reappear from time to time. Super Mario, Street Fighter 2, Sonic, all those wretched NES games from Animal Crossing - you get the point.
Now that those titles are dwindling down, we'll be getting to the real gems, the lesser-known games that you'd rather play anyway. That's the promise of VC, of giving a second life to all those games you missed out on years ago. I think Hudson Soft understands this better than anyone, which is why the Turbografx lineup is looking so damned good. If I were judging the performance of the five consoles on the Virtual Console, I'd say the Turbo has fared the best.
Anyway, let's take a look at this week's offerings. If the VC tradition holds, next week will be a loss, so let's spend our time and money here.
Gradius - Konami for NES - 7/10
I think this is around the time that the NES started to come into its own. Gone are the lousy earlier games; we're now in the post-Super Mario world, and other game designers have taken note. The Nintendo console finally starts to come into its own in 1986. Konami, as well, begins to emerge as a major player; the next year would see the release of Contra and Castlevania, Blades of Steel in '88, yadda yadda.
Gradius became one of the most influential of all space shooters, second only to R-Type. It's almost certainly the easier of the two, and has a lot more personality. We all know about the weapon system, where you destroy red ships to collect powerup icons, saving them to purchase shields, missiles, laser cannons, and faster engines. The options
There's also a more overt reference to the hidden surprises of Super Mario. There are many secret bonus points that can be discovered by flying through various pathways. Things like gaps in the mountains, or backing up into the right side of a giant rock. The whole idea of secrets and easter eggs became standard during the NES reign. Everybody picked up on it. Every game had to have a couple secrets buried away somewhere, like the prize in the Cracker Jacks.
Ah, yes! Speaking of easter eggs! Gradius marks the first appearance of the most popular videogame easter egg of all time - The Konami Code. Repeat after me, class: up, up, down, down, left, right, left, right, B, A, Start. You can use this once per level to fully equip your spaceship.
To be fair, these kind of codes were de regeur on the NES, but Konami had the horse sense to use the same exact code, game after game, until it became a mythology unto itself. Oh, and Gradius is a really good shoot-em-up. A bit on the slow side, and probably more famous for its history and name than the game itself. It's also monstrously difficult on later levels if you get killed and have to rebuild your ship from scratch. Such is life.
Soldier Blade - Hudson Soft for Turbografx - 8/10
I almost put down "Super Star Soldier" before I realized the error. It's easy to make that mistake, since Soldier Blade is really just the next installment of Hudson's Star Soldier series, and yet another quality shooter on the Turbo. This one comes near the end of the console's life, in 1992, and it demonstrates the development team's confidence and experience. They've been down this road enough times to know it by heart.
I don't know if you're going to be interested in Soldier Blade unless you're a real shooter fan, since Super Star Soldier was released on VC some weeks ago. You may decide that you only need one game in the series, since the games are practically interchangable. A little time spent playing will reveal more subtle differences, such as Soldier Blade's reliance on large enemy sprites and numerous boss battles. The game itself is still a cakewalk when compared to Gradius and R-Type, but then again, most shooters are.
I think games like Soldier Blade are what make the idea of a Virtual Console work. In an ideal world, we'd have free access to an entire console's library, not simply the biggest hits. We'd be able to discover the hidden gems that were overlooked or simply forgotten over time. I'm not seeing a lot of attention being paid to this game among the videogame blogs; it's clearly last on their weekly lists. Whatever. I think you'll have a fun time with this one.
Dungeon Explorer - Atlus for Turbografx - 8/10
Ah, now here's the game that everyone's waiting for this week. It was supposed to be released last week, but Hudson claimed to run into unexpected bugs at the last minute. Phooey. I say they didn't want this game to be tagged as part of the "bad week."
Dungeon Explorer was one of the real standouts from the Turbografx's early days. Very clearly inspired by Gauntlet, the game never played like a cheap ripoff, but a nuanced, challenging adventure game in its own right. It was also the great selling point for the Turbo's multi-tap, which allowed for five players to join in on the action. Back in 1989, this was still a pretty novel concept.
If you asked me what I like most about Dungeon Explorer, I'd say it's the music. Without any hesitation, it's the music. I think this is the best soundtrack in the console's library, a vibrant, full stereo mix that echoes and churms in your head for days. I forget sometimes how talented the Japanese game musicians were back then. Many of them could have been successful making pop music and becoming stars. They chose instead to put their gifted pop hooks into a bunch of videogames. Maybe they were shy.
Oh, and the game, the part where you actually play? It's really, really good. There's a clear effort to bring as much variety into the maze-exploration adventure as possible, offering many varied environments, a number of cities and towns, and a large cast of heroes. This is just the sort of thing that Tolkein nerds and Legend of Zelda fans live for. Just as long as they don't dress up in goofy costumes. That would just be sad.
Not many are aware the Dungeon Explorer was later ported to the Sega CD, with beefier graphics and a larger cast of characters. It has a lot going for it, and if the Sega CD is ever added to Virtual Console, that would be a game to look out for. But the music? Nah. It just wasn't as good as when it was on that little HuCard.
Now what the Turbo needs is Legendary Axe and Neutopia and Devil's Crush.