“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter
At NintendoLife, Alana Hauges notes a dispute between Corecell, developers of AeternoBlade II, and publisher PQube. It’s all a bit tl;dr, and that isn’t helped by the decision to put PQube’s lengthy response up front, undercutting Corecell’s arguments before we can even read them. In summary, Corecell claims PQube didn’t pay them for milestones, and PQube claims Corecell was unresponsive to their requests for fixes and offered to return rights. I mean, it’s rather they-said/those-others-said, but I note that PQube’s bring up the game’s poor sales, an irrelevant issue at best, is bad form. But we’re all busy blobbies and hey, here’s the next article.
Arcade Mermaid is our classic arcade weirdness and obscurity column! Once a month we aim to bring you an interesting and odd arcade game to wonder at.
You are reading the words of a Castlevania fanatic. Your standard fan who came into the series with the Igavanias will tell you its pinnacles are Symphony of the Night or, if they’re really trying to impress, Rondo of Blood. Truthfully, both of those are fine games. But I am of the opinion that the best the series has ever been was the first and third Famicom/NES games, and that series creator Hitoshi Akamatsu got a raw deal. The first game particularly is an especially brilliant gem among the jewels of the early Famicom’s library. Every moment of it shows care and attention to detail.
Just a few examples. While many people curse the stream of Medusa Heads that harry Simon Belmont at several places in the game, the game is actually quite sparing with their use, easing up with them at certain telling moments. One particular place this happens is climbing the staircases in the second stage of Block 3: while you’re on the staircases there, interestingly, the Medusa Heads don’t attack.
Also, the Fish Men in the first and fourth blocks, on the first loop, are kind enough never to jump from beneath the player’s location. And while on the second and later loops through the game they will happily emerge right beneath your feet and bump you into the water, there is a tell even for this: except for a brief section where there are no candles, Fish Men only emerge from the water directly beneath candle locations. (I gained a small amount of internet notoriety when an online friend pointed out where I had observed this fact in a Metafilter thread.)
I could go on, and will for a few more sentences, even though this kind of stuff makes for boring writing. The subweapons are very precisely designed, each filling a specific role in the game. All of the game’s platforms are supported by background elements, and when the player climbs stairs to a new area, background pillars in the upper area mostly line up with those from the lower area. You can see the crumbling spire that’s the site of the Dracula fight far in the background in block 3, half of the game before you get to climb up there yourself, and it’s such an iconic piece of level design that almost every Castlevania game that follows includes it. Much of its brilliance is recounted by Jeremy Parish in his book on the NES Castlevania games. (An earlier version of the Castlevania material can be seen linked here on the Internet Archive, but please consider his book if you are able to buy it.)
All of this is just preamble though, to the true subject of this post: the port for Nintendo’s Unisystem arcade hardware, Vs. Castlevania.
Castlevania is renowned as a tough game. While it only has six “blocks,” broken down into 19 stages, the game ramps up in difficulty pretty quickly through that thin territory. I’ve played through it all dozens of times. I’ve completed the game on one life before, but I still find the last level challenging. Even so, I’ve rolled both the score counter and stage counter. I’m good at Castlevania, not speedrunner-level, but, no offense intended to those who are, I have other things that I have to do. I cannot devote huge blocks of time to mastering individual games like I could as a teenager.
If you enjoy the original Castlevania, you might want to have a look at the Vs. variant, which is available via the Arcade Archives series for current consoles. Especially if you count yourself a master at it, this version will probably put you in your place.
In terms of hardware, the Unisystem is very close to a NES, and Vs. Castlevania doesn’t use any tricks that its home version doesn’t. Here is video of me playing through the first level:
People familiar with the original will notice that the game looks slightly different. The colors are different, which is something that was frequently the case of the arcade versions of NES software. It’s likely that the Unisystem’s hardware is responsible for this: as a protection against bootlegging, which was rife in the arcade industry, each Unisystem arcade board had, in addition to the ROMs with the code for each game, a specific, custom PPU chip with the palette for that game embedded within it. People who copied the ROM chips into EPROMs in order to run a game without buying it from Nintendo would have something that could technically run, but the palette would be for the original game, not the copied one, and make the colors look funny. While I don’t know if this is true for Vs. Castlevania, it might explain the difference if the whole game had to use a single palette set.
Two major differences between Vs. Castlevania and its home version are immediately evident. One, in the first level enemies do four bars of damage on each hit to protagonist Simon Belmont. The first couple of levels of NES Castlevania are mostly just a warmup. Enemies in both blocks only do two bars of damage, meaning even without health powerups Simon can take seven hits without dying. The increased damage is the same as on the game’s second loop, after finishing the whole thing and starting from the beginning. The arcade sensibility, to keep players putting in money in order to learn the game and see its later stages, means it doesn’t have time to let the player acclimate themselves to its heated waters. The fire is lit; the soup is boiling.
Even worse though is that, for each of the first three blocks of the game, the player only has 170 seconds to finish. It’s quite a shock if you’re used to the original, where time is practically never an issue! Even if you’ve mastered the levels on the NES, you’ll find, if you don’t constantly work towards reaching the door of each stage, you will easily run out of time. Expect the warning alarm to be ringing through the boss fights until you get used to the constant progress the game demands.
I don’t know what it is about the later blocks, but they have much more generous time limits, along the lines of the NES version. For these levels, the challenge goes back to surviving enemy attacks. Starting with Block 3, the game increases the damage done by enemies to levels never seen in the NES game even at its hardest: six bars, enough to kill Simon in just three hits. This makes Dracula at the end of the game quite a challenge.
If you manage to loop the game, you get to see something quite amazing. Desperate to end the player’s credit now, the game increases the damage done by enemies to eight bars, killing Simon Belmont in just two hits. More than that, the game pulls off the stops with nuisance enemies. You even have to face bats in the outside area before entering the castle! Take a look at this:
The extra nuisance enemies are an especially interesting addition, since NES Castlevania never uses so many, even on the second loop and beyond. It’s exactly the kind of ludicrous challenge that people who have mastered the original game should seek out!
Castlevania is not the only Vs. game with substantial differences from the arcade version. Vs. Excitebike has many niceties over the home version, including some clever bonus stages. Vs. Balloon Fight in the arcade is a vertically-scrolling game, that played with two players gives each its own monitor. There’s lots mot to say about these games, but I’ve got to save some material for later.
Tutankham Returns (itch.io link, $0) is a port/expansion of the classic Konami/Stern arcade game Tutankham. While Tutankham had only three levels, this has seven, but otherwise is much the same kind of thing. Compare the above to the original. It matches the original’s sound, graphics, and presentation exactly! The games have especially good sound design.
You want to know a great game that, statistically speaking, you’ve probably never played? Konami’s Maze of Galious for the MSX. It’s an early example of that genre we all now call Metroidvanias (Jeremy Parish, your royalty check is in the mail), and in Japan it was hugely inspirational. More recently, it was a direct inspiration for the La-Mulana games.
Well, more-recently-than-that, some romhackers have updated it to take advantage of the much more powerful MSX2 hardware. This results in much more detailed and colorful graphics and a number of other game improvements.
Playing it requires a rom of the original game (which you much seek out yourself), the patch file (here’s it’s GitHub site), and a patcher like Floating IPS. Or do you? Indie Retro News found a site that’s serving up the game and patch together, all ready to play!
If you’re prepared to patch the rom yourself and name it correctly (it’s explained on the project’s GitHub page), it can also be played in the online MSX emulator at webmsx.org.
So, what’s playing it like? Challenging! You have two characters, Popolon and Aphrodite, who have separate health and experience meters. Filling up your experience bar doesn’t actually improve your stats at all; it just heals that character up to full. And your characters’ jumps, while not as stiff as Simon Belmont’s, are not fully controllable in mid-air.
The two characters have subtly different abilities. Popolon’s attacks do more damage, he can jump higher, and his jump height varies according to how long the button is held. He’s also the only one who can push open doors. Aphrodite’s jumps are of constant height, but she’s also the only one who can survive in water! If one character runs out of health, the other can soldier on alone, but reviving the other is a difficult process.
In fact, the whole game is a difficult process! This is from that thankfully-brief time in the history of video gaming where developers seemed to revel in putting in secret features and hidden passages. Beating the final boss requires you find a very well-hidden item, the Cross, which is in a very secret passage. If you no longer have months to devote to finishing a game, you’re probably going to want to find at least a good FAQ for this one.
I’m a big fan of the work of Kimimi The Game-Eating She-Monster, who regularly finds the most interesting things to write about. Where she finds the time or energy I really don’t know. Maybe she eats batteries.
TwinBee began as kind of the sibling game of Gradius, and had a similar, if somewhat less prominent, development in the years following its birth. It started as a kind of clone of Namco’s Xevious, which, as Jeremy Parish reminds us, was a lot more popular, and influential, in Japan than it was here.
TwinBee brought a number of advancements over Xevious: fun cartoony graphics, catchy music, two-player simultaneous co-op play, and, a thing that was very new to video games at the time, a powerup system. Not just picking up icons to increase capability either, but a skill-based system that involved juggling Bells with your shots until they changed color. It was a kind of counterpart to Gradius‘ more strategic system, but both games let players pick which abilities they wanted without just letting them jump right to full power.
TwinBee got three sequels on Famicom, including the game’s only official release in the US (other than a couple of Wii Virtual Console releases much later), renamed to Stinger. And all was well, for a little while.
Then, Konami decided that what TwinBee needed was a reboot, long, long before such things became ubiquitous. They restaged the setting to some time after the original games, and introduced teenage cousins Light and Pastel, and the infant Mint, to be the new pilots of the TwinBee ships. They kicked off this period with the arcade game Detana! TwinBee, which ramped all of the things that were special about the original arcade game way, way up.
TwinBee is one of those hidden bits of classic Konami lore that you have to know about to understand why people are fond of that period of the company’s history. It’s a far cry from the modern-day pachinko purveyor. Particularly WinBee pilot Pastel was a very popular character at the time, spawning a mini industry of products devoted to her.
Konami experimented with a number of alternate genres for TwinBee around this time. The best-known of these in the west is probably Rainbow Bell Adventure, a Sonic-style platformer for the Super Famicom/SNES that did see release in Europe, although in a degraded form. RBA is its own kettle of worms that we’ll probably talk about some other time. What matters to us is another of these experiments, and the subject of Kimimi’s article, TwinBee RPG, a self-insert kind of game thing, along the lines of the Game Boy Grandia game, or, on television, Captain N: The Game Master in the US, or Bug tte Honey in Japan.
These are all properties where one or more audience surrogate characters are warped through their television into Video Game World, and have Adventures. Indeed, the isekai style has long been with us. (Can flat-screens can serve as portals to gameworld, or does it have to be CRTs? You should probably check your TV’s settings for portal compatibility.)
Arcade Mermaid is a recurring feature where we look at weird classic arcade games. The word weird has many meanings; sometimes it means bizarre or ludicrous, but sometimes it means of a really unusual design.
Our game this time easily fulfills multiple senses of the word. Konami’s Amidar was released in 1982, putting it near the end of the arcade boom in the US. It still came out early enough to get an Atari VCS/2600 port from Parker Bros., the source of many of the better arcade ports of the time that didn’t come from Atari or Coleco.
Odd Boards: Gorilla and Spearmen
Amidar‘s game world is both abstract and evocative. You’re a gorilla, tasked with collecting all the dots on a board made of lines, while evading hostile spearmen called “Amidar” (plural) and “Tracer.” Unlike as in Pac-Man, the playfield isn’t a maze as it is a bunch of adjoining boxes, with you and the enemies walking along their border lines.
People who have played a lot of Mario Party might find something oddly familiar about this layout. We’ll get to that.
When you collect all of the dots around one of those boxes, it fills in with a solid color. These boards you can play somewhat like Pac-Man. There are differences, though. The “turn the tables” mode that lets you attack your pursuers activates when you fill in the four squares in the corner of the screen. You only get one such period every level, and it takes a lot of effort and some foresight to achieve it. If the last box you fill in is one of those corners, you complete the level immediately and don’t get any bonus points for chasing down the enemies.
Even Boards: Paint Roller and Pigs
There is another kind of level in Amidar, however, that plays similarly, but with a significant difference. In these, for some reason, you’re not a gorilla but a paint roller, and you’re avoiding not natives but bipedal pigs. No reason is given for the change of graphics, although they’re still called “Amidar” and “Tracer.”
In these alternate boards, each of the rectangles has a number in the middle, which is a bonus score you earn for filling it in. On the gorilla boards, you only get points for collecting dots and capturing enemies during the attack period. Here, you get points for surrounding boxes and capturing them, so these score a lot better.
The trade-off, that makes these boards a lot harder to complete, is that you can’t just collect dots however and expect your progress to stick. There are no dots.
Instead, you have to extend the colored border away from already-colored lines, surrounding boxes one at a time. If you leave the border of the box you’re currently coloring, your progress will disappear! You’ll have to go back to one of your established lines and start over. Because you can’t just color them at any time but instead have to extend your territory out to them one box at a time, it’s a lot harder to take advantage of the attack phase granted by coloring the four corner boxes. It’s a lot harder in general. Most games end on Pig boards.
You have final aid to help you get through each level. Each board and each life, you get three uses of a “Jump” button that allows you to slip by the Amidar and Tracer. But, in keeping with a game where you alternate playing as a gorilla and a paint roller, the Jump button doesn’t allow you to jump over enemies. Instead, it causes the enemies to all jump, allowing you to pass beneath them.
After you’ve played a couple of games of Amidar, you might catch on to an unusual property of the enemies. They don’t chase you. The have a specific route they follow through the board. Pac-Man may have patterns you can use to evade its ghosts, but Amidar makes the pattern followed by the enemies explicit, and the whole point of the game.
The motion of the normal enemies is entirely deterministic and uncaring of your location. Instead, they move in a specific, meandering pattern. They actually follow the routes of the Chinese “Ghost Leg,” or as it’s called in Japan, Amidakuji lottery. (You see? Amidakuji? Amidar?) They move down along vertical paths until they reach a horizontal intersection, which they will always take and then continue downward. When they reach the bottom of the board, they reverse their vertical progress, going up to reach the top again, still taking horizontal paths when they encounter them.
This is where Mario Party players might find this familiar. The Amidakuji lottery is simulated in the minigame Pipe Maze. In this, the four players are randomly arranged at the bottom of a network of pipes, and one of them must drop a treasure chest down one of the entrances at the top. The treasure travels down in the manner of the Amidar, and whichever player it reaches at the bottom gets the treasure.
The Amidakuji lottery has some interesting characteristics. It matches up each of the vertical paths at the top with exactly one path at the bottom. It doesn’t matter how many side connections there are, there will always be one way through for each path at the top.
To emphasize this, between each board of Amidar there is a bonus round that works more directly like the Amidakuji. You pick one of the routes for an Amidar to begin winding down, trying to guide it to a bunch of bananas at the bottom. Once you learn the knack of these stages it’s not hard to get the bananas most of the time. With your eyes, try to quickly trace the path in reverse, starting from the bananas.
The key to success at Amidar is focus and practice. With experience you’ll get better at figuring out where the Amidar will go in real time, and can avoid them more easily. Later levels increase the number of Amidar. Also, since a player can avoid the Amidar pretty consistently, there’s a failsafe timer in play. If you take too long to finish a level, the Tracer, which usually only moves along the outer boarder, will leave its patrol route and start following your prior movements through the level. This really starts to be a problem with Level 4. It’s good to save the corner blocks for when this happens.
Once you internalize the rules to Amidakuji, you may find yourself progressing deep into the game. I’ve been as far as Level 6! The game also has charming, melodic music in the style of Frogger. At the time of its release it was a minor hit for Stern, its licensee in the U.S., and now can be seen as a highlight of its genre.
A post-script. I searched for information on Parker Bros. Atari VCS port of Amidar, the only one made during the classic era of arcades, and found a page on the fandom.com wiki that gets many key facts wrong. It mentions coconuts: no version of Amidar has coconuts in it. It mentions the Jump button making enemies jump and not you: this is not at all evident in the VCS version. It mentions a bonus stage after every round: this doesn’t exist in the VCS version. This is one of the reasons I hate fandom.com!
“We scour the Earth web for indie, retro, and niche gaming news so you don’t have to, drebnar!” – your faithful reporter
Greetings to all humans down there on planet Glorb-III, also known as Earth. Let’s get started, drebnar!
A lament from Reddit on how Streetpasses are impossible to get now. If only Nintendo had thought to include them on the Switch. Probably it’ll take another ten years before they realize what a good idea they had.
Chris Friberg of Den of Geek tells us his picks for the 15 best NES RPGs. #1 is Dragon Quest III! (What do you mean, don’t spoil it? I’m an alien, I spoil everything drebnar!) He also ranks Wizardry pretty high, he has great taste!
We’re back for another Sundry Sunday! Congratulations for making it another week into our technological hellscape! Your reward is another catchy tune and some information from the old days of arcades.
Gradius is a long-lived and storied series of shooters, full of interesting details and traditions, but my favorite part of it all is something not a lot of English-speaking fans may be familiar with.
The first arcade releases of Konami’s Twinbee and Gradius were produced using “bubble memory,” a type of storage that had to warm up, literally, to be read reliably.
It would work effectively if it had been running for at least a couple of minutes. So, to prevent anyone from playing the game too soon after the machine had been turned on in the morning, it would display a countdown on the screen. It would also emit a digitized voice, saying “Getting ready!” and then after a few seconds, it would play the MORNING MUSIC, while the computer warmed up, as in the video embedded above. I kind of think of it as the national anthem of arcadeland.
One of the quirks of Gradius‘s bubble storage is that it was read sequentially, from a starting point. Its stage layouts were stored in this memory. Dealing with this hardware quirk required the game, when the player lost a life, to return back to the last starting point they had passed. This was the source of one of the Gradius series’s major characteristics, having to return to a previous part of the level, which could then be read into memory going forward once again.
I forget where I heard this factoid, but I think I saw it in the supplemental material in the Gradius Arcade Collection, out on Steam and Switch, and no doubt other platforms. Hey, it’s Sunday, I’m not supposed to be stressing out about these details!