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FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

The moon does appearConsider this a trigger warning: this is going to be a fairly heady article. It’s going to get personal, too. We’re talking about Michael Jackson, and… yeah, I don’t think I need to further explain what difficult topics will be explored. This is your warning… or something approaching that.

And, to be clear, this is a goddamn shame. We’re covering a game (or two) featuring Michael Jackson today, and, ladies and gentlemen, the jokes write themselves. There is a part of me that really wants to travel the low road on this one, and point out how something like 90% of the content here has aged monumentally poorly. You want some humorous content? Here’s MJ getting railed by some manner of dick-robot.

Right in the beans

Haha! He’s gonna be singing soprano after that!

But, if I’m being honest (and that’s the point of this essay), that’s exactly why I feel I need to be serious here. Yes, a videogame starring Michael Jackson has aged poorly. Yes, that is fairly inevitable with any product starring someone that was a cultural icon (see also some mall adventures). And, yes, due to the details of Jackson’s fall from grace, even a common trope like “save the kidnapped children” is going to be seen in a different light. This is all true. But the important part? The thing that would not stop running through my mind while playing this random Sega Genesis cartridge from 1990 is just how overwhelmingly sad the whole thing made me feel.

When I was a kid, Michael Jackson was my goddamned hero.

Save her!I’ve claimed in the past that my musical tastes as a child were entirely and wholly provided by my parents, who, as children of the 50’s, had more of an inclination to listen to The Big Bopper and The Beatles than Aerosmith. By the time I was a teenager, I learned both of my parents had been actively shielding me from “the hard stuff”, but even the forbidden list was predominantly songs that were golden oldies. My mother didn’t like the idea of me listening to Bohemian Rhapsody even by my teenage years, as it was “a suicide song”, but that was still a song released almost a decade before I was even born. Point is that, for all “the hits of the 80’s” that my local FM station assures me are real, I listened to maybe 1% of what was actually popular when it was prevalent. I think only Don’t Worry, Be Happy was on the approved list…

But, somehow, Michael Jackson was the exception. Actually, I take that back. I know exactly why MJ was an exception: “Weird” Al Yankovic. My parents knew their beloved, gigantically nerdy son, and figured I would enjoy the likes of “Fat” or “Eat it”. Weird Al’s oeuvre was obviously kid friendly, and (not going to lie) it was probably a great choice, as I’m pretty sure absorbing Weird Al’s recurring clever wordplay when I was a child is why I make word choice good now. But listening to a series of parody songs inevitably invites a need to hear those source songs, and, since WAY seemed to have a thing for MJ songs, you can guess what was high on the listening list. It wasn’t very long before I graduated from Weird Al’s Even Worse to Michael Jackson’s Bad (wait… isn’t that backwards?).

And I was in love.

ZOMBIES!I’m not even going to try to define why Michael Jackson was popular with the public at large. However, I can safely point to a handful of reasons why I, personally, liked Michael Jackson. In no particular order:

1. His music slapped
2. Actual moonwalking was fun and easy
3. Music videos that could and would include claymation

However that list does ignore the prime reason I adored Michael Jackson: he was a big damn weirdo.

Look, this is a blog where I occasionally compare relationships old and new to videogames. I have written obscure NES hero fanfic. I don’t think my dear audience believes there was a switch in my head that flipped to “big ol’ weirdo” when I became an adult. I was a weird kid. I had friends, I participated in activities, and I had extremely loving and protective parents; but there’s no debate as to who was “the weird kid” in any given classroom. And being the weird kid? There’s no helping being the weird kid. The dumb kid can get some special educational help, the smelly kid can get a shower, and the kid who pissed himself in first grade can just learn to beat up every other kid by second grade. But the weird kid? You don’t really ever stop being the weird kid. You’re always going to get distracted by Weeeeunusual bird feathers on the ground, or spend gym class planning out your victory dance rather than actually playing the assigned sport. You try not to be weird by carefully noting the last grade you’re ever allowed to talk about cartoons (it was third), but that all falls apart the moment you obviously get excited about the latest Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movie. And then it’s noogie time, and you’re reminded that, one way or another, you’re not like everybody else.

Michael Jackson was a universally beloved musical icon. And Michael Jackson wasn’t like anybody else.

Michael Jackson was a star, and he lived his life exactly how he wanted to live it. And this isn’t about residing on a ranch literally named for never outgrowing childhood, this is about his actual performances. He sang the lyrics he wanted to sing. He danced the way he wanted to dance. And he took his performances and personas to some extremely unusual places. He wasn’t content to simply have a “scary song”, he had to produce an entire music video featuring zombies as an homage to old horror movies. He appeared in cartoons when the medium was considered about as culturally relevant as cereal commercials. And if he wanted his own videogame, he got his own damn videogame.

Get in there!Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker appeared in many guises on many systems, but the two main versions were the arcade game and its Sega Genesis counterpart. To be honest, neither game is particularly that good. The arcade version is something of a rote beat ‘em up with its only defining characteristic being a monkey-based powerup that transforms your chosen Michael into a laser-blasting robot. The Genesis version isn’t much better, but is marginally more unique. This is more of a Rolling Thunder/Elevator Action-esque affair, and the caveat is that you have to open like every goddamn window, trunk, and door between Michael and the enemy’s secret base to find the lost children required to finish a stage. There’s a nugget of a good game idea in there, but it winds up becoming little more than Michael Jackson’s hide ‘n seek as he checks every closet in the house for more and more children (… dammit, I said I would avoid the low hanging fruit…).

And, despite the fact that both of these games aren’t particularly good, Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker was one of the two reasons this Nintendo kid wanted a Sega Genesis. There was Sonic the Hedgehog and Michael Jackson, and all a Wee Goggle Bob wanted in this world was a system where they were both combined (and maybe a game, too). Michael Jackson, the King of Pop that was also a giant weirdo, was waiting for me there. He liked videogames, too!

And then everything happened.

To be clear for anyone that didn’t live through it, it wasn’t like society declared him cancelled, and then Michael Jackson was forever banished from the public eye. Michael Jackson had always been weird, but now there were allegations. Now there was a reason to chastise the man for doing things that were not simply unusual, but wrong. And not everyone believed it! It was a slow drip of accusations, lawsuits, and the occasional televised “deeper look”. Regardless, Michael Jackson retreated more and more from the public eye, and, by the time he passed in 2009, he was remembered as practically a different person from his 1990 incarnation. Hell, the change happened so gradually, it allowed The Simpsons to go from idolizing Michael Jackson as the most important person to ever visit Springfield…

Michael Jackson!?

To, four years later, claiming Michael Jackson was little more than a mythical, malevolent phantom…

Who!?

A hero had become a villain, and now we’re at a point where MJ has been wiped from the show’s history.

And eleven years after Michael’s death, I’m still not sure what the hell I’m supposed to learn from such an event.

Do I believe the allegations at this point? Yes. Duh. Though, if I’m being completely honest, it took me a long time to get there. Michael Jackson is weird! I believed that people were just taking his obvious weakness for children and childish pursuits and turning it into some kind of pedophilia. In retrospect, that seems almost dangerously optimistic, but, at the time, it was just how I defended my hero. And that was the problem. Whether it be because of my impressionable age, the indoctrination of videogames and media where he was a literal hero, or simply because I wanted to listen to good music without thinking too hard about bad things, I followed Michael Jackson a lot longer than I should have. In retrospect, I regret ever giving the man so much I AM ROBOTas a dime, left alone allowing him to dominate that precious tape collection I always lugged to the nearest boombox. Michael Jackson was my hero, a hero that stood for everything I cared about when I was a certain age, and then it turned out that he was scarring children for life literally while I was supporting him. I was a fan of a “hero” that has victims.

Has this influenced my own life? Probably. I’m not going to point the finger squarely at one Bad individual, but I feel like this is part of the reason I gravitate toward fictional heroes like Optimus Prime or Voltron while leaving the real world behind. Barack Obama is a president and a man I felt I could stand behind, but I could never support the man with the kind of all-consuming dedication I have seen from other fans, because he was and still is, ultimately, a man. And a man has flaws. Sometimes those flaws are making decisions you don’t agree with, sometimes those flaws are literally criminal, but they are still reasons not to venerate any given man or woman. We’re all people, and we should treat every person with an even dosage of doubt.

This is where we are: I play a videogame about a pop star rescuing children from zombies with the help of a monkey, and the only thing I can think of is how we should be skeptical of literally every human on Earth. Michael Jackson ruined the lives of many children. He was not a hero. He didn’t “rescue kids” anymore than he could turn into a robot. But it’s not all bad! There are good people! There are people worthy of praise! They might not be perfect, but there are people that actually save children. You don’t have to worship them, but there are people that balance the cosmic scales, even if not a single one is the King of Pop. We can move on from Michael Jackson.

Right in the beans

And MJ can just eat a piledriver.

FGC #505 Michael Jackson’s Moonwalker

  • System: Sega Genesis is technically the version ROB chose, but the Arcade version is also a valid choice that follows roughly the same plot and concept. That concept is that Michael Jackson can turn into a space ship or a car anytime he wants, but chooses not to.
  • Number of players: One on the Genesis, the unusual three in the arcade. You would think Jackson would account for five.
  • THE CHANGEAdaptation: Yes, this is videogame tie-in game for Michael Jackson’s movie of the same name. If you missed out on his cinematic masterpiece, it’s basically a loosely connected collection of music videos and concert footage that includes a miniscule feature about Michael Jackson rescuing children from his former manager/mob boss. It’s worth a look if you’re ever on Youtube and feel like watching something that will make you hate yourself for a solid hour or so.
  • Favorite Level: Like The Simpsons Arcade Game, the third stage inexplicably turns into a graveyard featuring innumerable zombies. Their continual leaps recall Chinese hopping vampires, though, and there are at least two zombies that split in half to rain knives from the sky. What I’m saying is that my favorite level is the absolute weirdest.
  • So, does Thriller play over the zombie level? Nope! Apparently there was a licensing issue, as MJ didn’t write the entirety of Thriller. However, there are some prototype versions of the game floating around that retain the song. Vincent Price doesn’t appear in any version, though, unfortunately.
  • An End: The arcade version sticks to one genre, but the finale of the Genesis game gets a light shoot ‘em up in there for the final confrontation. It is the exact opposite of fun, but it is vaguely reminiscent of that Star Wars game. Oh, and the actual ending of the game is just Michael dancing with a monkey.
  • Did you know? The basic premise of this article is also why I will not be covering Space Channel 5 or Space Channel 5: Part 2. I can only deal with so many Michaels in power.
  • Would I play again: Did I mention that this game is not particularly good? It wasn’t terrible for the early 90s, but it has not aged well in more ways than one. There are a lot of other games I can play that are about 120% less problematic.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… Gunstar Super Heroes for the Gameboy Advance! Now there are some heroes we can get behind! Please look forward to it!

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

BLOCKS!My fiancée will tell you quite loudly and clearly that she does not play videogames. My fiancée is also a liar. She plays videogames. She just doesn’t play “videogames” as she thinks the world defines them. She plays Candy Crush. She plays some other game that looks exactly the same, but involves farm animals. I think there’s another one with soda. She plays these games constantly, whether we’re sitting watching a movie or traveling to the wilds of Canada. And Pokémon Go! When it’s raining, she will get in the car, and drive around the neighborhood for hours looking to find a shiny or conquer a local gym. If this were a MMORPG, she’d be sitting at a computer for hours, but since her chosen raids are partially based in the real world, she’s not really playing a videogame, you understand. I proposed to her with a friggen’ Pokéball, for crying out loud!

Sparkles

But, no, she doesn’t play videogames. Yes, I completely understand that compared to my gaming habits, she doesn’t “play videogames” (she doesn’t even have a videogame blog! Can you imagine?), but to claim that she doesn’t play videogames at all seems… disingenuous. She doesn’t play the same kind of videogames that are traditionally covered on this blog, but she absolutely plays videogames. And, what’s more, these are not simple, even-your-grandma-can-play games. She routinely plays games that involve experience points, rationed continues, and complex resource management. There’s no judgment against supposed “casuals” here, videogames are videogames, and whether or not a Pikachu or some manner of sentient fruit is involved is inconsequential.

Blocks!One videogame my fiancée plays is Tetris. According to her own words, it is her favorite videogame (which, reminder, is something she doesn’t play). She’s been playing it for years, and notes that during some of the less hectic times in her life, she played quite a lot of it. She’s good at it. I can say with firsthand knowledge that she kicks ass at Tetris, and I have the recorded play sessions from Tetris Effect to prove it.

And, given I believe this is the first I’ve ever mentioned my fiancée on this blog, I feel I should note something else: she’s a bit of a… let’s say… completionist. She pathologically cannot deal with leaving tasks unfinished, and her Type A personality compels her to complete goals to the best of her ability, earn an A on that math test, and then win the big football game because she spiked the final 3-pointer (she tells me she also understands sports better than I do). She deals poorly with losing for any reason in any way, and, officer, I assure you this black eye of mine is from walking into a doorknob, and certainly not because the dear love of my life threw a chair at me when I caught a rare Pokémon before her. As a result of this personality quirk that she honestly and wholly admits is an issue, we don’t often play competitive games together. Even if I win, I lose, so let’s play some games where we either cooperate or work in parallel. It’s better for our collective mental health.

So I really should have known better than to suggest we play Puyo Puyo Tetris for crossover week (“week”). I should have used my good eye to foresee the inevitable.

WeeeeeFor those of you unfamiliar with the title, Puyo Puyo Tetris is exactly what it says on the tin: it’s a puzzle game that combines Puyo Puyo and Tetris. For those of you unfamiliar with Puyo Puyo, it’s a color-block matching game that has visited America in various disguises over the years. For those of you unfamiliar with Tetris, welcome to Earth, and I hope you enjoy your stay on our humble planet. In both cases, we’re dealing with games where objects fall infinitely from the sky, and you must carefully manage these bits and pieces so they “clear” and your play area is not filled with so much useless junk. And this version of these respective games is predominantly based on the concept of multiplayer, so you also have to deal with offensive “junk blocks” that are generated by your opponent doing well. It’s not enough to play the game with skill, you also have to be wary of your rival playing the game with that same skill, but faster.

But just because both games are involved, don’t think they don’t completely interact. Back in the Super Nintendo days, we had Tetris & Dr. Mario, but that title was little more than an excuse to tape two Gameboy games together and sell the package for $70. Tetris and Dr. Mario intermingled about as much as Super Mario Bros. 2 and 3 in Super Mario All-Stars. Puyo Puyo Tetris is another story. You can play head-to-head Puyo Puyo or head-to-head Tetris, but you can also play Puyo Puyo while your opponent picks up a game of Tetris. And it’s not simply “parallel play”, a properly completed Tetris can send junk sailing over to your Puyopponent. And it doesn’t stop there! There are other “versus” modes available that involve both games, like a puzzle speed run mode (called Big Bang Mode because “puzzle mode” sounds like a punishment), or another option where the game rapidly alternates between Puyo Puyo and Tetris boards. There’s even a mode that combines Tetris and Puyo Puyo into one focused game that adopts blocks and puyos from both franchises.

I think it was that mode in particular that caused my fiancée to start shouting expletives I cannot repeat on this blog.

I have no ideaLook, Tetris and Puyo Puyo being played in a sort of parallel is one thing, but outright combining the gameplay of both into one complete board is borderline crazy. The benefit of both of these games is that, individually, there isn’t much that has to be learned or understood to get going. Yes, there are complicated techniques involving starting combos or focused spinning or whatever in both games, but they’re both superficially very straightforward. Match the colors, line up the blocks. Empty spaces bad, alternating colors bad. The end. The best puzzle games are instantly understandable, and both Tetris and Puyo Puyo fit that bill. This is literally the reason your grandpa wanted a Gameboy. But Tetris + Puyo Puyo is confusing. Clearing a line requires using Tetris blocks, while popping puyos require puyo bubbles, and you don’t always have access to either kind of block. What’s worse, there are some moves that don’t seem to have obvious consequences, like how squishing some puyo bubbles with tetris blocks looks like you’re clearing out the clutter, but the bubbles will respawn and fall shortly thereafter. It’s something that happens every time, but it’s not immediate or often enough for a player to quickly distinguish whether these “junk blocks” are the result of something done by the player or their opponent. It creates a sort of “stress” that is not the traditional “things are getting heated because the board is filling up” stress, but more of an “I have no idea why things are happening or how I can make it better” stress. And it occurred to me that this stress could be very traumatic for some people right around when I won a match and my dear fiancée hit me with a folding chair. She is normally so respectful of the furniture!

And this might just be the pain meds talking, but there’s a certain… beauty in this crossover chaos.

What?Tetris x Puyo Puyo loses something. It loses its simplicity, and, with that, it loses its immediate and obvious accessibility. It loses an “easiness” that has been comfortable for decades. But it gains something in exchange. It is more complicated, but that complication adds nuance and techniques that would otherwise be completely absent from the experience. It adds a whole new dimension that was never there before, and would be completely impossible to so much as touch in the normal, base games. I have played a lot of Tetris games over the years, but they’ve always been constrained by being… Tetris. Adding Puyo Puyo to Tetris creates a whole new world of possibilities, and, while it does take some time to learn, it is an actual new experience. Tetris Effect, you’re great, but this is a genuinely, wholly fresh experience, and it’s satisfying to shift over to such a change once in a lifetime.

Tetris loses a little bit of itself. Puyo Puyo loses a little bit of itself. But what is gained, the final gestalt of the merging of these two things, that is greater than the two original items. Sometimes it’s hard to learn the ins and outs of this new…. thing, but it’s worth it. Both games are better for having crossed over.

Oh, anyway, did I mention I’m engaged?

She sparkles

I did? Yeah, there might be a metaphor here.

I love you, honey, and I’m looking forward to our crossover continuing.

Now… uh… could you put down that tire iron? I promise I was only kidding about playing Mario Kart…

FGC #496 Puyo Puyo Tetris

  • System: My understanding is that this is available on Nintendo Switch, Playstation 4, and Steam. However, there are also versions available in Japan (from 2014!) for Xbox One, 3DS, Wii U, Playstation Vita, and Playstation 3. This game is more traveled than I thought!
  • Number of players: Four player split screen action! Online modes available, too! It’s all very crazy and/or fun!
  • Favorite Mode: It’s the Puyo Puyo x Tetris mode. Did you get that from the article? I like new things right now. That may change in the near future.
  • But seriously folks: My dear fiancée is not physically violent. If you are in a relationship with someone that abuses you, physically or mentally, and you don’t have any options, please seek help. There are many highly trained counselors and nonprofit organizations out there that can help you, even in our current, nebulous existence. And I am not saying this because someone is holding a frying pan to my head.
  • Let's go!How about that Story Mode: Is this what it’s like for other people playing Kingdom Hearts? There are just all these weird anime characters with silly hair running around and shouting at each other for level after level, and, eventually, it is revealed this is all because “god” is angry and lonely and might need a hug. Or to play Tetris. And then the universe is saved thanks to a robot that sounds like a Pokémon.
  • Did you know? This is the first American release of a straight Puyo Puyo title since Puyo Pop Fever in 2004. Everybody counts the years between Metroid releases as some sign as to whether or not the franchise is dead, but nobody gives a damn about when Puyos haven’t been seen for a decade….
  • Would I play again: Just as soon as the swelling goes down, I think we could try playing this one again. I am going to have to find some manner of anchor to confirm the Switch isn’t tossed across the room, though.

What’s next? Enough with the mushy stuff! Our final crossover title is going to be the best crossover game released in the last decade. Please look forward to it!

WINNER

FGC #488 Sonic the Hedgehog 2

I can hear this GIFLet’s talk about when gameplay storytelling succeeds and fails.

Give or take a title screen or maybe a level select menu, there are practically zero words in Sonic the Hedgehog (1) regarding anything but the eponymous mammal and his clearing of a zone or two. But we still learned everything we needed to know about Sonic from the moment-to-moment of his first adventure. He’s fast. He’s brave. He squashes his nefarious opponents with the greatest of ease. And, while you could ascribe these same traits to any ol’ videogame hero, we also know what sets Sonic apart. He’s got attitude! Mario would be happy with being the player’s best friend. Mega Man is an unfeeling, occasionally blinking robot. Pit is having a really tough time of it. But Sonic? Sonic really would like you to move fast, player. He doesn’t have any authority over his own body for the duration of this game, and you could ram him straight into the closest badnik if you’d like, but… could we hurry this thing up? This erinaceid has got places to be.

Gotta stay in place fast

Sonic the Hedgehog 2 has much the same script as Sonic the Hedgehog 1. There are some zones, an egg-shaped dude who likes robots perhaps a little too much, and one shining hero that is here to save the day. Oh, wait, my bad: there are two heroes! Sonic the Hedgehog 2 introduced Miles “Tails” Prower, and he’ll be assisting Sonic on this adventure. And what’s Tails like? Well, according to his debut game, Tails is a complete moron.

Let’s look at the evidence. Tails is, while participating as the second player, invincible. It has been mentioned before that this was and still is a revelation for cooperative platforming gaming. A little over twenty years before Nintendo figured out invulnerable Nabbit might be a fun way for Little Timmy to participate, Sonic the Hedgehog was blazing through levels with a buddy that could not be stopped by literally anything. Tails might fall victim to spikes, a bottomless pit, or the occasional squishing block, but he’s back literally seconds later to help Sonic all over again. The second player is never a burden upon the likely more experienced first player, and, give or take occasionally bonking a baddie at the wrong time, literally all a second player/Tails can do is help. A second player could enjoy a breezy, low-impact experience throughout Sonic 2, and help player one along the way.

Stay bossyLet’sHowever, in a way, this deviation from the norm seemed downright wrong in 1992. Being “less” as the second player, the mere sidekick to player one’s hero, seemed to justify all the punches thrown over who “has to be” Luigi back in the Super Mario Bros. days. What’s more, in a decision that still seems maddening today, Tails wasn’t even allowed to participate in the final levels. Hey, Sega, I’ve got an idea! Let’s promote this cool, accommodating new feature in the Sonic the Hedgehog mythos, and then not even allow it for the final, most difficult levels! That sounds wonderful! And, even if you’re not worried about sitting out the finale, playing as Tails means knowing you’re not steering the ship: the scroll of the level and the reactions of the baddies are always going to be firmly pivoting around the irreplaceable Sonic. Playing as Tails might be fun for a toddler or a mate that isn’t interested in paying attention, but there’s nothing empowering about Tails. It’s easy to consider yourself an afterthought when Sonic is constantly leaving you far behind.

And, unfortunately, single player mode portrays Tails in a similar light. It is wonderful that Sonic has a buddy, and said buddy doesn’t immediately turn the entire game into an escort mission. Anyone that has ever played an adventure-RPG knows that, given the chance, the AI can and will drain all your precious resources as Goofy downs the last ether. In short, Tails could be a burden, but he continues to be helpful… assuming you wait around for him. Tails is prone to losing time to traps and tribulations, and there is essentially zero reason Sonic would ever wait for his partner to recover while the clock is still ticking. Tails might be generally helpful here and there, but you’re never given a reason to really care whether Tails lives or dies.

Except when you want him to die.

Let's roll!

Like right here.

Everyone that has ever played Sonic the Hedgehog 2 knows what they’re seeing. Sonic and Tails collect rings to earn the precious Chaos Emeralds, and the only way they’re going to receive those gems is through grabbing every last ring they can find. And when Tails grabs a ring, that’s great, but Tails also can’t dodge a bomb for his furry little life. Tails can and will run straight into mines one after another, and, whether Sonic deftly leaps around the stage or not, Tails is still going to bleed rings like a jewelry store having a going out of business sale. While it’s clear that AI Tails is following the player’s lead on movements, he’s not following those movements nearly fast enough, so Tails is lagging behind. Tails is too slow for this special stage, and he’s bringing Sonic down as a result.

Red?And what does it mean when a character is continually being tripped by traps, falling behind the leader, and costing Sonic valuable rings due to slow reactions? It means Tails is slow. Tails is stupid.

(And don’t try to tell me Tails is a genius because he flies a plane in one level. That’s a standard videogame trope. The boys from Contra can steer a tank with ease, and those nimrods can’t even figure out basic shirt technology.)

Later games portrayed Tails not only as intelligent, but as a downright genius. Sonic Adventure 2 firmly placed Tails as the equal, benevolent balance to the evil genius of Dr. Eggman, but earlier Game Gear titles already portrayed Tails as an ingenious lil’ dude with access to a number of gadgets. Sonic has his speed, Tails has his smarts. But in the maiden voyage of Tails? Tails is a nitwit. And when Tails returned for Sonic the Hedgehog 3 & Knuckles, he didn’t fare better at all. He’s 33% of the playable cast, but he’s the one dummy who can’t figure out how to gain hyper emerald powers. And later games portray Knuckles as the “all brawn and no brains” protagonist of the franchise, but that’s only because he got tricked by Robotnik a time or two (or six). But I don’t see Tails escaping from Knuckles’ frequent traps. Tails! Why are you falling down one of Knuckles’ pitfalls? You can fly! We would have never had to suffer through the Hydrocity Pronunciation Wars if you could have remembered to literally get your ass in gear! Use your brain, dullard!

What just happened?So here’s the sad truth of Sonic the Hedgehog 2: after immediately and successfully establishing Sonic’s status quo with nary a word in Sonic the Hedgehog (1), StH2 dropped the ball completely with Tails. Later games would have to tell us Tails was smart, but those who remember his debut will never forget the tagalong that didn’t have enough IQ points to get out of the way of a bomb.

Tails could have at least had one idle animation where he does math homework…

FGC #488 Sonic the Hedgehog 2

  • System: Much like Mega Man 2, Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is now available for every system that has ever existed, save the Nintendo 64. Okay, maybe Sonic is not as prolific as Mega Man, but he’s at least available on the Switch.
  • Number of players: If you don’t know the answer to this, you’re dumber than Tails.
  • Speaking of Special Stages: I hates them. I hates them so bad. Why are they so difficult? Why do they require pinpoint accuracy? Why in blazes did anyone think it was a good idea for them to wipe out your ring cache after every attempt? And why the hell has the stupid opening fanfare of the bonus stage theme been stuck in my head for twenty years!?
  • And speaking of hate: The final boss can go to hell. There. I said it. Can we move on to things I enjoy, yet?
  • Seriously?!?Wanna talk about how you manage to get three eggmen every time you ever try the slots in Casino Night Zone? Nope. Moving on!
  • Favorite Zone: Now we’re getting somewhere! Mystic Cave Zone has music that really slaps, and it has a lovely aesthetic to boot. I’m ambivalent about murderous lightning bugs, and the spike pit is rather unpleasant, and I could live without those hanging switches… Did I mention the music was great? Because the music is great.
  • Super Sonic Racing: This was the first game to feature Super Sonic. And he completely breaks everything in the game in every conceivable way, occasionally even glitching out and completely breaking himself. And that’s just fine, because no one is ever going to complete those bonus stages without save states anyway.
  • Did you know? Apparently Sonic the Hedgehog 2 takes place on “West Side Island”. We have no idea where West Side Island is on the Moebius world map, but I’m going to go ahead and assume it’s somewhere in the east.
  • Would I play again: This is not my favorite Sonic the Hedgehog game (which more deliberately includes Knuckles), so I’m not itching for more Sonic 2 trouble in the near future. It’s a great game! But I feel it is less fun than 3 or Mania, so it might be another decade before I return to the Oil Ocean.

What’s next? Random ROB is closing out this two for twofer with… Breath of Fire 2! Join the second best Ryu from Capcom on a quest to slay the second best Jesus. Please look forward to it!

Respect?

FGC #461 Space Harrier

GET READYLet’s give credit where credit is due: credits suck.

Space Harrier is a fun game. At its absolute most “please define this game”, it is a shoot ‘em up of the general fantasy/space variety. However, when you actually grip that special flight stick and start jetpacking around and obliterating dragons, you realize this is something unlike anything else in the arcade. The perspective is “3-D”, a stark change from the other shooters of 1985 and beyond, and there’s just some indescribable something about the sheer rush of adrenaline one experiences when whistling through rapidly scaling rocks and mammoths. Maybe it’s the unusual choice of nixing the typical spaceship or jet and featuring a flying beach bum. Maybe it’s battling absurd and alien monsters that are vaguely enigmatic but wholly murderous. Or maybe, as ever, it’s the moai heads. Whatever the reason, Space Harrier is an incredible experience, even now, as the game approaches its 35th anniversary.

And speaking of things in their thirties, I had the pleasure of playing Space Harrier in my local arcade a number of times as a child. It wasn’t my favorite game (by the time I had a disposable income [my grandfather’s wallet], some certain turtles had already drawn my attention), but Space Harrier held my interest for a number of play sessions. I wasn’t actually any good at Space Harrier, but something told me I should return to that cabinet every once in a while when Magneto or Shredder was defeated. I never saw the final level (let’s be honest, despite the unwavering belief of the adults in my life, I was not actually all that good at videogames as a child), but I did find my way to at least one bonus stage that seemed to reprise the best parts of The Never Ending Story. That was enough for me! Time to go play some Pac-Man before I retire for my afternoon nap.

WeeeeeeBut just because I didn’t beat it didn’t mean I didn’t want to beat it. My grandfather’s quarters may have seemed unlimited, but hours at the arcade were at a premium. I only had time for the best of the best, and, let’s face it, how was a game that was already nearly a decade old going to compete with Konami’s The Simpsons? What would have been ideal for a Wee Goggle Bob was a perfect port of that sweet, Space Harrier goodness. Okay, maybe “perfect” was asking for a bit too much. But Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2: The Arcade Game was pretty great! It may have had compromised graphics, but it was still something I could play at home with Jimmy on a Saturday afternoon. And it had two extra levels! Yes! A port of Space Harrier might have had to ditch the delightful graphics and controller of the arcade release, but it would be worth it to finally see the Fantasy Zone conquered if a home port could bring home the action.

Actually, strike that. There was a Master System port of Space Harrier, and it was barely recognizable. It tried to hoist a plot onto this nonsense! You can’t do that, Sega! I want to obliterate skeletal dragons divorced from any sort of stakes! … Oh, also the graphics were terrible.

And, like Nintendo of America, we’re not even going to acknowledge the NES version.

But! Space Harrier did get a “real” port in 1994. By that time, Sega home hardware had progressed to the incredible graphics of the 32X, and we were granted the most accurate port of Space Harrier yet available. And there was much rejoicing! This was distinctly Space Harrier, complete with huge sprites, detailed backgrounds, and that unmistakable feeling of adrenaline as your lil’ dude zooms over the horizon. Maybe dig out an appropriate controller, and this is truly an arcade experience that, after nearly a decade, finally makes it way home.

Except you won’t see anything past the third stage.

Rock 'n RollThere are eighteen levels in Space Harrier. There are a couple of bonus stages in there, but, aside from that occasional Flammy ride, every thing in every stage is trying to kill you every second. Bosses are bullet sponges, mundane mooks are menacing many minutes, and even inanimate objects are instantaneously fatal at the slimmest contact (though, granted, ol’ Spacey is moving pretty fast). There are no distinct power ups in Space Harrier, so the best you can hope for is temporary invincibility after a lethal collision. A new life grants you a few seconds of sanctuary, but after that grace period is terminated, you could die in every Space Harrier stage literally every five seconds. And suffice to say, if that’s your playstyle, you’re going to need a lot of quarters to see the boss parade finale.

The 32X “arcade perfect” version of Space Harrier offers… five. Five credits. Max.

Not to be constrained by the limits imposed by Sega executives of 1994, your humble author decided to try the real arcade version with unlimited quarters. The results? Even as a seasoned future gamer from the far-flung future of 2019, even as someone who has been playing shoot ‘em ups from birth, even as someone that is a registered cyborg (okay, maybe not really, but I strongly believe that the number of hours I’ve spent with a controller welded to my hands should count for at least partial credit) I still averaged about one or two deaths per level. To be clear, I very much mean “averaged” here, as some of the earlier stages saw me zooming unmolested through the skies as Koschei the Deathless, and other fantasy zones ended with a cavalcade of credit-based corpses scattered across the land. The final stage, a grueling boss gauntlet, was obviously a quarter killer, but, aside from that bit of digital malice, Space Harrier seems like a very doable game with approximately 35 credits. That would be nearly ten bucks worth of quarters in 1985 credits. That, arguably, seems fair.

TOO FASTSpace Harrier 32X allows for five credits. That is about thirty less than I would need. If my mother were playing this wonderful game, that would be about three hundred less than she would need. And that’s ignoring the final boss gauntlet, which, even for a seasoned veteran, would likely require a fiver all on its own. In short: your average player isn’t seeing the end of Space Harrier on five credits. Your average player might not even see the second level.

And that’s terrible! Because Space Harrier is good! And, while it is a bit repetitive in general gameplay, it’s still a game that literally never stops throwing new challenges and monsters at the player until the finale. Up to that point, every stage is different from the last, and the difficulty progressively ramps up to compensate for a more confident player. It’s not like Space Harrier ever turns into Battletoads, but greater challenges do wait on later levels.

But the average player would never see those levels. Limited credits meant that a game had to be grinded into a fine paste until a player had the skill to perfectly fly across level after level. And, even if that were achieved, you still only had a handful of lives to conquer the final challenges. That bone-dragon come out of nowhere and wreck your perfect playthrough? Well, welcome back to level one, loser, get ready. You’re doing great (wasting your life)!

AH!Credits, luckily, have gone the way of the dodo in recent decades. As arcade games (and arcades!) fell out of favor, less and less games seemed to exist to gobble up quarters. Credits were forgotten for loot boxes, DLC, and loot box DLC. Companies found new and exciting ways to fleece customers, usually with items that contain the adjective “rare” (“legendary” is also acceptable). And, ultimately, we’re better for it. A Space Harrier released today might include suspend state saves or infinite credits detracting from the inherent challenge or tension of the experience, but it would allow your ailing granny to actually see Planet Nark and Wi Wi Jumbo. And that’s a privilege everyone should have, regardless of skill, reflexes, or whether or not you own an entire camel full of quarters. Credits are a scourge on allowing someone to enjoy an entire game.

And before anyone wants to tell me that I’m wasting my time, and I may as well be railing against polio or wooly mammoths, let me remind you that Neo Geo emulation with credits is still a thing. A horrible, horrible thing.

Limited credits need to stay firmly in the dustbin of history.

FGC #461 Space Harrier

  • System: Arcade and 32X for this review, but it has also appeared on… Didn’t I cover this as part of the article? I am not going to repeat myself! But do pick up the 3DS version! Switch also available!
  • Number of players: Space is a great big place that can only fit one Harrier at a time.
  • Ready? Many more battle scenes will soon be available !
  • Stop Complaining: Yes, the 32X version does have an “arcade mode” code that offers infinite credits. But it requires a second player controller and an immediate stop over at Gamefaqs (or Sega Visions). I’m going to claim that doesn’t count, because I couldn’t be bothered to check for cheats online before playing (now or in the 90’s).
  • This guyWhat’s in a name: Uriah is the fuzzy, white dragon that helps during bonus stages. That is a weirdly biblical name for a magical reptile (or mammal?). David married your wife, dragon!
  • We’re all friends: The title screen seems to imply that, like Altered Beast, all the characters are friends when the game isn’t in session. All the game’s a stage, and the players merely… players.
  • Favorite Boss: For inexplicable reasons, the double skeleton dragon (Salpedon) appears before the single-skulled skeleton dragon (Valda). I don’t know what makes Valda so special, thinking he can show up with a mere one head when his better has already appeared in an earlier level, but that takes guts, and I respect that.
  • Did you know? Considering Space Harrier was one of the first 16-bit titles in the arcade, and it used a vaguely analogue-esque “stick” for controls, it would be very appropriate to say Space Harrier was ahead of its time. Considering Space Harrier was released the same year as Commando (not Bionic) and Gauntlet, you can see why Space Harrier’s gorgeous purple skies caught players’ eyes.
  • Would I play again: On the 32X? Never. The arcade version (with infinite credits)? That sounds about right.

What’s next? Random ROB has chosen… SoulCalibur 6! And the soul appears to still be burning. Maybe someone should put that out? Please look forward to it!

I hate these bugs