Thursday, September 4, 2014

Five Awesome Famicom Horror Games...

...that, for some tragic reason, never made it to the U.S.

There were a ton of horror themed games on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and pretty much all of them not called "Castlevania," "Ghosts 'n' Goblins" or "Monster Party" sucked. Of course, there are quite a few guilty pleasures to be found on the NES, but for the most part, the console's "horror" selections were a lot more "horrible" than "horrific" -- as anyone who has ever played "Dr. Chaos" or "Beetlejuice" can surely attest to.

Interestingly enough, the genre offerings on the Famicom were FAR superior to the games we got over here in the States. This probably has something to do with Nintendo's import policies, which effectively kept most Japanese games with high violence and sexual content from making its way across the Pacific. And it's a damned shame, too, because some of the Famicom-only horror games were not only outstanding genre titles, but actually some of the best NES games to never make it to the United States.

With Halloween nigh approaching, I figured it was worth our time to highlight five terrific monster, demon and blood-soaked 8-bit frightfests from the Land of the Rising Sun which, in a just world, would've have likewise haunted all of our NES consoles back in the late '80s and early '90s...

Akumajou Special Boku Dracula-Kun

You've really got to wonder how this one never made it stateside -- how could a chibi-style "Castelvania" platformer starring Dracula himself not get the localization treatment?

Released in Japan in 1990, the game is something of a self-mocking homage to the "Castelvania" series by Konami themselves -- think, sort of what the did to the "Gradius" series with the "Parodius" games here. Whereas the "Castlevania" games on the NES where renowned for their steep difficulty level, this game is somewhat surprisingly easy, although a few of the later boss showdowns can get rather frustrating.

Visually and mechanically, the game is very similar to two other Konami games from the timeframe -- "Tiny Toon Adventures" and "Monster in My Pocket." While the title is a bit slow for the genre, the level layout is outstanding, and the numerous odes to the "Castelvania" games are executed rather cleverly. Thankfully, the game did make its way to America in at least one incarnation -- the 1993 Game Boy offering "Kid Dracula" is basically a shrunken down port of this sadly non-localized NES game.

Getsu Fuuma Den

Not only is this game a dream hybrid of so many different (and awesome) games like "Dragon Warrior," "Castlevania" and "Ninja Gaiden," there is also a metric TON of gameplay itself to be found within "Getsu Fuuma Den." While most platform games on the system could be conquered in less than an hour, this is a title that's likely to take even seasoned genre fans seven or eight hours to complete -- if not longer.

Released in 1987, this Konami offering bears more than a passing resemblance to the first "Castlevania" game, although with levels that are much more linear. Like "Super Mario Bros. 3" and the latter "Adventure Island" games, the title uses an overworld map, which is without question the largest of any platformer to be found on the NES. For a game released this early in the console's lifespan, the sheer amount of content is pretty staggering.

You'll plow your way through scores of excellently designed dungeons, battling wave after wave of skeleton warriors, floating spirits and highly annoying severed heads, periodically taking detours to chat it up with villagers and upgrade your weapons. Like "Zelda," the game uses a tandem A-button, B-button/offensive weapon, defensive weapon setup, and it works very well. And probably the coolest thing about the game? Before each district's final boss battle, you have to navigate your way through a huge pseudo-3D catacomb, which in addition to being technically impressive, is also one of the spookier things you're likely to encounter in an 8-bit game. 

Splatterhouse: Wanpaku Graffiti 

If you thought a cutesy-version of "Castlevania" was weird, you haven't seen anything yet. Would you believe a kid-friendly offshoot of the hyper-gory "Splatterhouse" series made it to the Famicom -- and on top of that, would you believe it is one of the best platformers on a system glutted with outstanding hop-and-boppers?

Commandeering the cutest wittle Jason Voorhees doppelganger in history, it's your job to march across graveyards littered with kamikaze crucifixes to punch zombie monsters in half (some of which give you wrapped candies for bisecting their innards) on an epic, dismemberment-fueled quest to save your girlfriend from an evil floating pumpkin.

Whether you're fighting possessed roosters, dodging chainsaw attacks or karate chopping spider-monsters that pop out of the chest cavities of corpses, the game always looks bright and extremely well-animated. And in a complete divergence from the main "Splatterhouse" franchise, the game incorporates some truly novel platforming sequences. The level design is reason enough to give this one a try, and my goodness, what a great twist ending!

Sweet Home

Nintendo aficionados, take heed: not only is "Sweet Home" far and away the best RPG to never make it to the North American market, for my money its the absolute best role playing game released on the console, besting even 8-bit titans like "Dragon Warrior III" and "Final Fantasy."

Based on a fairly obscure Japanese horror film, this 1989 standout is a character driven RPG with some of the absolute best atmospherics to be found on either the Famicom or the NES. Using an ingenious team-based system, you're able to maneuver five characters -- all of whom have their own special functions -- at will across a massive, super creepy mansion. In my humble opinion, no video game before or since has really nailed the sheer B-horror ambiance of this one; more so than any game I can think of, this criminally underappreciated EIGHT BIT title from twenty five years ago makes you feel like you're really trapped inside a Reagan-era splatter flick.

Primarily due to its inspiration of the "Resident Evil" series, "Sweet Home" has become something of a cult favorite over the years. With far and away the spookiest plot of ANY NES game (spoiler: it involves LOTS of child murder), so many refreshing gameplay mechanics and the inclusion of multiple endings, this isn't just a game fit for the Samhain season -- indeed, this is one of the absolute best Famicom games EVER published.

Youkai Club

The graphics in "Youkai Club" may look a tad underwhelming, but everything else about the game is truly stellar. YEARS before the "Castlevania" series itself took the "Metroid" approach, this fairly obscure Famicom game pretty much gave us the first real "MetroidVania" game, featuring a HUGE vertical and horizontal game space, tons of kick-ass character up-grades and some truly awesome monster boss battles. Hell, I think this game actually outdoes the first "Castlevania" and "Metroid" titles at their respective games!

Released all the way back in 1987 by Jaleco (the same guys responsible for the NES version of "Maniac Mansion"), "Youkai Club" has you navigating your way up and down haunted castles, marching your way through creature-glutted swamps and spelunking through caverns filled with ghastly monsters and spirits. It may not win any awards for creativity, but the sheer fun of the game -- thanks in part to some great level design and some silky smooth controls -- is impossible to overlook.

Yeah, I suppose you could say the game is fairly repetitive at times, but through and through,it's a really entertaining little horror game. And on top of that, it has what may very well be the single greatest end boss in the history of video gaming: a a juggling jester who turns into a Cthulhu who spits Grim Reapers at you!


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