Thursday, October 6, 2016

Unearthed Treasures: Adventure Island IV (Famicom)

Perhaps you're familiar with the scenario: It's the a.m. hours of a boring Sunday night. Light on entertainment options, you decide that you might as well watch a little TV. There probably isn't much in the way of quality programming airing at these late hours, you figure, but whatever--there's always the chance that one your favorite sitcoms from the 80s or 90s is currently playing in syndication on some obscure network. Really, you'll settle for anything that can kill a few hours. So you switch on the tube, activate the channel guide, and apathetically begin to scroll down the mile-long listing looking for anything that isn't an infomercial or a political news show.

Suddenly your spirits raise and you become filled with excitement as your eyes happen upon the recognizable title of a movie from a series you absolutely adore. But then you notice that something's wrong. Your brow starts to crinkle in perplexity as the movie's full title comes into view. You find that your brain is struggling to process what appears to be a strange abnormality in the title's form. You're confused not because the title is misspelled or distorted in any way but because it's accompanied by a number that doesn't seem to belong there. It's either that the guy in charge of updating the channel guide has made a huge mistake, or you have, in what feels like a bizarre twisting of reality, just discovered that the series you love has a sequel you've somehow never heard about! A quick press of the Select button confirms the actuality of the latter.

"Home Alone 5!?" you ask yourself in disbelief. "When the hell was there ever a part 3!?"

"Universal Soldier VIII?! Huh?! Can it be that Van Damme and Lundgrun are still kicking after all these years?"

"How'd they slip a Grease 2 by me!? The original was one of my favorite movies growing up! There's no way I wouldn't have known about a sequel!"

Those right there are the same conflicting feelings of astonishment and bewilderment that permeate my being whenever I discover that there exists an inexplicably obscure sequel in a video-game series I hold in high regard. For reasons I struggle to put into words, I'm simply fascinated by the entire process of learning about and unearthing lost sequels--particularly those that were released very late in a platform's life-cycle. To me, nothing else in video games is as alluring as the undiscovered late-era sequel.

My obsession with their ilk has a lot to do with what they represent: The gaming world had long since moved on to newer consoles, yes, but there in the background, beyond our stare, were our dependable old friends soldiering on against all odds, their creators' devotion to producing quality experiences on outdated hardware having resulted in the forging of endlessly mysterious artifacts that would always be waiting there for those who were lucky enough to stumble upon them.

Adventure Island IV personifies their type. When I first read about it sometime during the early 2000s, I couldn't believe that such a game actually existed. I don't remember much about the piece I was reading (it was likely a retrospective written by Jeremy Parish, who can always be counted upon to dig up gaming's hidden treasures), but I do recall there being a passage that spoke about how Adventure Island IV "played like Metroid," which was all it needed to say to arouse my extreme intrigue. In following, my mind overflowed with questions as to the hows and the whys.

"I'm a long-time fan of the series," I told myself with shaken confidence, "so how is it that I've never heard about this game? Why was it a Famicom-only release? Why didn't Hudson bother to localize it? And why did its creators decide to abandon the series' fevered, gruelingly difficult trial-and-error stylings in favor of Metroid's lax, leisurely paced approach?"

It's not that I was concerned about the change in formula. I wasn't. Rather, I was thrilled that Hudson had decided to make the switch, since I loved the action-adventure genre and wanted to see what an exploration-based Adventure Island would look like (and partly because I valued my sanity)!

Now it's true that I played through Adventure Island IV once before, but that was a long, long time ago; honestly, I recall nothing about the experience except for those feelings of retroactive nostalgia that pervaded my every sense as I immersed myself in the game. I'm not sure why I didn't return to it thereafter (I don't remember being dissatisfied with it), but I don't regret my decision to hold off on doing so. I'm glad I waited; my restraint has produced an ideal opportunity to revisit Adventure Island IV in the present day and write about it while it's still fresh in my mind. And while this space is normally reserved for games through which I've never played, I'll be making a special exception in the case of Adventure Island IV, which has long endeavored to escape my memory.

I'm eager to revisit Master Higgin's tropical open-world and figure out why those feelings his game conjured still resonate with me. Let's find out what Adventure Island IV--or, rather, Takahashi Meijin no Bouken Jima IV--was doing back there in 1994 when none of us were looking.

And holy smoke, Dr. Jones--this game can't wait to get started. After booting it up, I'm not allowed even a split-second to settle in before the game blitzes me with its berserk intro. Its pace is so brisk that I had to repeatedly reset the game and each time focus in on a different part of the screen in order to adequately piece together what was going on. From what I could gather, a star crashes down into the center of the island and fires like-shaped projectiles clockwise toward five specific locations: a pyramid, the jungle, a crystal cave, a frozen lake, and the volcanic mountains. The projectiles' explosive impact causes the respective areas to undergo distinctive cosmetic changes.

The game offers no explanation for what this event foreshadowed (the completion of an alien invasion, I'm guessing); rather, we immediately cut to our usual cheerfully imbued title-screen chase scene. This time, a hammer-wielding Master Higgins and a sunglasses-wearing snake creature take turns comically pursuing each other.

I watch the demo sequence with the hope that its sights and sounds might jog my memory, but it fails to conjure even the faintest mental rendering. I simply don't remember any of this. Well, hold on--I do have a fuzzy recollection of that mountain cliff with the giant ice cube clogging up the watery passage. But that could be a bad sign, actually. When you're able recall only a single room, puzzle or boss fight from a game you haven't played in decades, it's usually because something about it left deep emotional scars.

The style of action remains purely Adventure Island, yet Higgins has been notably miniaturized. If I didn't know any better, observing his childlike body and facial proportions might lead me to believe that I'm playing a distant prequel. Obviously both his sprite dimensions and jumping ability have been scaled down to accommodate him to a more-spacious open world whose design requires the type of incrementally granted accessibility that would be particularly nonbinding to the taller, leggier variety of Higgins.

Adventure Island IV boasts crisp, bold visuals and that unforgettably funky art style I remember so well from its two direct predecessors. Surfaces textures are embellished with the skeletal remains of random creatures, and every structure, be it a cavern wall or a floating platform, casts a stark, strongly contrasting shadow. It's an unmistakable look, really.

But hey--what do you say we stop beating around the bush and actually play the game?

In the opening cut-scene, Higgins arrives home to find his oft-kidnapped girlfriend, Tina, waiting for him at the door. Suddenly, the sky darkens and the star from the intro appears before them, manifesting as an evil spectral face. As Higgins and Tina watch on, the face flips open its mouth and inhales all five of their dinosaur friends. Wisely, for once, Higgins is able to prevent Tina's abduction by shielding her (though, I'm betting that she'll be kidnapped sometime later on anyway). After the specter dematerializes, we immediately jump into action, our goal clear: rescue our dino buddies and discover the source of this great evil.

Our default weapon is a bone that we can toss at a downward arc; it's basically a low-rent version of Higgin's trusty throwing-axe. For the first time in an Adventure Island game, Higgins can crawl along the ground (unlike that Metroid fellow), a position from which he can (a) toss weapons at a lower trajectory, (b) maneuver beneath projectile fire, and (c) squeeze into narrow passages.

Pausing the game via a press of the Start button reveals a largely empty three-tabled inventory whose listings include "Weapon & Item," "Power" and "Special Item." It's all very Zelda-like in how it's arranged, which means that we've got loads of collecting to do! Pressing the Select button brings up the world map we saw in the intro, though it doesn't appear that our current position is marked.

Our horizontally aligned HUD, located at the screen's bottom, has four cells: The one that comprises its center displays our health in the form of hearts, of which we currently have two. The one on the left has an apple icon placed adjacent to 8 circular slots (this might function as the means for increasing our heart-total). And the two small cells on the right show my currently equipped weapon and, I'm guessing, our selected "Special Item" (the cell is currently empty, so I can't say for sure).

We can go into our house, but there's nothing in there. I have a vague recollection of this being a place where my dino friends gather as I rescue them. It's here where I learn that Higgins can climb ladders, which is another new ability for the grass-skirted island explorer.

A few screens over to the right is a cave that's home to an elderly pterodactyl who was apparently our fellow adventurer. He's grown too old to use his special egg, which affords its holder the power of teleportation, so he gives it to us (I should mention that I can read the text because I'm playing an English-translated version of the game). The egg is our fist special item, though the harsh buzzing sound that blares when I try to select it is a sign that I'm not yet capable of calling upon its power.

I don't have to advance too far into the game to begin identifying potential sources of my aforementioned nostalgia. The soundtrack is definitely a big part of it: The music is generally upbeat in tone, but it has this laid-back, sentimental quality that instantly brings to mind those old summer days when my friends and I had the house all to ourselves and the sounds of 8-bit video games permeated every space; I'm reminded of the scene wherein faint sunlight would find its way into my bedroom, through the cracks in the shades, and create the muted illumination whose pale-orange hue would supply tint to the darkened environment, helping to render an atmosphere that was perfect for an afternoon spent enjoying our favorite NES games. That's the power of these old-style chiptunes: For at least a few hours, their entrancing hold really does have the power to take you back--to transform the space around you and make you feel like you're home again.

It's the ideal style of music for a lighthearted action-adventure game like Adventure Island IV, which oozes wistful vibes.

So now that I'm properly immersed in its world, it's time to get moving.

Most of the enemies seen early on are of the classic Adventure Island assortment: snails, crows, spiders, and the like. They're joined by a few newcomers, like lobsters, moles and tiny flying insects. Collecting the fruit they drop (as well as the standard randomly-appearing produce) fills up the slots in our apple meter, which it turns out merely functions to restore lost health. Well, that's a pretty unique system for health replenishment. I like it. There's also the added psychology of needing to avoid fruit when seven out of eight slots are filled and your health is already full; you don't want to expend your means for energy restoration when you don't need to.

The game isn't as kind as your average Zelda title, though. We don't get half- or quarter-heart damage here; any damage inflicted drains one whole heart. I'll be needing some health upgrades soon.

At this early stage, most areas are inaccessible. It's either that large rocks obstruct our path or platforms are out of jumping range. An archetypal underground cave system allows me passage to the other side of the mountain, where I find the residence of a mini-game operator. However, I can't participate because I've yet to procure a hammer.

Cool--I can even climb up the stems of palm trees. Maybe the game's early sections weren't as linear as I thought. I'll have to go back and check. 

During the return trip, I discover that item eggs still exist, but it appears that they only drop replenishing hearts--no skateboards, weapons, or invincibility fairies. Sadly, you can't crack them open by pelting them with weapons; rather, you're forced to stick to the alternate method of colliding with eggs and flipping them over. And there's nothing of value to find on this side of the mountain, so I head back to where I was.

At the top of the mountain's right side is another mini-game challenge. I'm tasked with competing with a lobster to see which of us can climb an icy pillar the fastest. And oh God--it's an Olympic Games-style button-masher. Though, no matter how feverishly I pound on the buttons, I can't even advance more than a few millimeters. I give up after about eight failed attempts. I'm guessing that I need some type of speed-enhancing power-up for this. I'll come back later.

Springs have been replaced by sprouts, which all the same propel you high into the air. Thankfully, you don't have to time button-presses for increased propulsion, as they toss you up at a fixed height. When I enter the door directly to the west, I find myself in a Kid Icarus-style challenge room whose opposition is a giant bat that swoops back and forth from one side of the screen to the other. It occasionally stops to release a winged underling, but that's about it; our first mini-boss offers no real resistance. Killing it earns me the bludgeoning hammer weapon, which is powerful but lacks range; also, you have to consider its laggy swinging motion when you attempt to use it while lunging toward enemies. I imagine that it'll be more practical for clearing away stony obstructions.

And it is. The hammer is required for shattering the rocky fragment that can be found blocking the passage immediately to the east.

I've gotta say that Adventure Island IV looks to have a great deal of variety in terms of weapons and activities (mini-games and such). I'm glad to discover--or, rather, rediscover--that Hudson wasn't playing it safe in its efforts to convert Adventure Island into an action-adventure game.

I knew the significance of that sunflower the moment I saw it; there was no way it wasn't signalling the imminent appearance of one of those charge-from-behind foxes. I wasn't going to fall for that old trick, Hudson.

So far, I like how they've incorporated traditional Adventure Island elements into a game that subscribes to a dissimilar design philosophy. It makes me wish that more class video-game series had taken this same risk.

And look at that--a spider of all things randomly dropped an invincibility star (though, sadly, there's no fairy accompaniment this time). One egg even produced a bomb that I could pick up and throw; though, there was no obvious place for me to exploit its explosive blast, so I instead used it to blow up some irritating moles. But so what that I couldn't find use for it? Adventure Island IV doesn't care to justify to me anything that's going on in its world. There's no adherence to standard series conventions here. Anything goes, baby, and I might as well learn to love it.

Oh, I see: You can place the teleportation egg atop any pedestal marked with a pterodactyl emblem (at first I thought it was an engraving of a duck, so I didn't immediately make the connection) and create a checkpoint to which you can warp back any time. Good to know.

I'm not surprised to see that these early cave sections feature a familiar selection of designated enemies: bats, snakes, and those peculiar angry skulls with the two bladed contrivances rapidly orbiting around them. The designers have sprinkled in some new critters, too, like pink tarantulas and a new breed of bat that clutches on to Higgins and completely drains the contents of his health-regenerating meter (I've learned that crawling is effective for completely negating flying enemies and their swooping attacks).

I've come upon a wilted sprout, which I assume I'll be able invigorate later on with a water-based weapon (the gap in the ceiling directly above it hints at such). The tight platforming in this cavern confirms that the game's jumping mechanics are still highly momentum-based. That is, it's important to already be in full motion when attempting to clear long gaps. Unlike Mario, Higgins isn't able to quickly accelerate from a standstill, and he'll fall well short of the desired landing point if he attempts as much (only by getting a running start will he be able to clear gaps that measure in at more than three blocks in length). Not that it matters if I fall into the water, I find, since Higgins can swim! I forgot that he's been able to do as much since Adventure Island II. Well, that takes all of the danger out of platforming challenges that involve hopping over watery gaps.

As I enter the cavern's northern portion, the music suddenly turns ominous. If it's an Adventure Game game, then this could only mean that a boss is waiting up ahead. But I'm not confident about my health situation, so I decide to head back and finish exploring the cavern's east side. It's here I find my first heart container! Unfortunately, procuring it doesn't come with the added benefit of total health-replenishment, so I'm still going to have little room for error when fighting the boss.

Interestingly, I find that I can pick up stone slabs and place them down wherever I please; they're only two- or three-pixels-high in width, but that small boost is all I need to gain access to platforms that were otherwise just out of reach. The stone slab in this particular room helps me to obtain an inconveniently placed health-restoring meat item. I feel like I remember this room. Actually, I've had a few similarly hazy flashbacks, but still nothing solid.

Our first boss is a stationary boulder-tossing golem. The boulder's movement randomly switches between a looping and snaking pattern; after rolling along the ground to the left, it either sails directly over the two center platforms or bounces between them. Periodically, the golem slams its mighty hammer into the ground, the resulting reverberations causing the overhanging rock on the left to drop down. If Higgins is grounded during the hammer-strike, he becomes temporarily stunned. And, uh, I was so busy observing the boss' patterns that I took too many hits and died. Well, that's all right--at least I reached that checkpoint.

I'm sorry--what? You can't be serious. Get this: It doesn't send me back to the pedestal upon which I placed the teleportation egg, no; rather, it puts me alllllll the way back at the game's starting point with none of the weapons or items I've collected since I set off! That's harsh, man. You mean to say that there's no true save system? I mean, there has to be if the title screen has a "Password" option. 

If this game doesn't offer a convenient method for saving progress, then things are going to get painful real quick. I'm talkin', like, Adventure Island-level difficult. Don't do that to me, Hudson. Don't make me have to resort to unscrupulous means.

So I get back to where I was (it only took about two minutes) and take out the golem with relative ease. Destroying it leads to the release of Magma, my red dinosaur friend, who rewards me with a bludgeoning torch weapon. And just like that I've secured the entire jungle area.

Predictably, I can use the torch to light the hanging sconces that can be seen lining the back wall of the darkened room into which I've been dropped (it seems to be a tutorial area). Lightning them temporarily illuminates the entire room, revealing doorways that were otherwise imperceptible. Escaping through the room's left exit takes me ... back to my house?! How does that work? Is it like one of those Renegade doors that can somehow carry me across whole continents? I'm not complaining, of course, but that's kind of weird.

I'm just now realizing that the house's shaded window is actually a display of some sort. I discover by accident that Higgins can sleep in the bed to the left, doing which restores his health and prompts the display to reveal a password. I have a hunch that this is the game's means for saving progress. I confirm this to be the case after repeatedly throwing myself face-first into a spider; I die and then arrive back at my house with all of my inventory intact. And suddenly I'm relieved. I'm not going to have to beat the game in one shot! I figure I'll place the teleportation egg in the pedestal nearest to the house and leave it there permanently--so I can warp back to this place, the game's safest area, the instant I get in trouble. I'll deal with backtracking if it means not losing all of the weapons and items I've collected since the last save.

Somehow the large rocky obstruction to the immediate left of the starting area has shattered on its own (awwww--I wanted to do it!), which confirms that some barriers will automatically vanish when certain conditions are met. The tropical environments in the overworld's western portion spill into a series of dark, fiery caves. It's here we find more of the usual convenient obstructions and some interspersed mini-games.

But there are still many places I can explore. Also, I've come to understand that there's really no such thing as an unbreachable barrier or a bottomless pit in Adventure Island IV. Every aperture is navigable, and there always seems to be one additional screen over to which you can transition. The game's world might not be as expansive as I imagine it to be, but its mode of level design has done a great job of creating the illusion that it's boundless.

I run into another mini-boss: a giant version of the classic snake enemy. Defeating it earns me a bubble-spewing pump. As expected, it revitalizes wilted sprouts, turning them back into leafy springs; also, it can extinguish all manner of fiery obstacles. The design becomes particularly labyrinthine at this point; there are now a whole bunch of available paths, each one begetting another set of available paths. I can't guess as to which route will bear the most fruit (get it, 'cause there's a lot of fruit in this game? Anyone still reading this?).

After backtracking a bit, I locate an arching entryway that leads to a cave with five entrances, each of which is marked with a special symbol (the four suits from a standard playing-card deck plus a star). Of course! This is where my dinosaur friends hang out. I remember this part well. And indeed my liberated pal Magma is waiting for me in the cave's spade-emblazoned apartment. As he's always been apt to do, Magma can spit short-ranged fireballs and wade through lava. Also, I find, his fireballs, too, can light sconces. 

Well, here's a conundrum: I want to use my weapons, but I don't want to dismount Magma and leave him behind. Fortunately, as I'm pleased to discover, the designers came up with a great solution to my problem: If while riding Magma I enter the inventory and select any of my weapons, it simply swaps him out for that chosen weapon; I can switch back to him at any time by reentering the inventory and selecting his representative playing-card. Though, he's instantly knocked out of action the moment he takes damage, at which point it falls on me to have to retreat all the way back to his cave if I want to regain his assistance. For now, I'd prefer to retain his services. He makes navigating the volcano areas, with its lengthy lava lakes and perilous platforms, a breeze.

My chosen path takes me to the caves below the volcanic area, where I meet another boss--a sentient lava creature that hovers in places and tosses out pairs of fireballs. Though, the fireballs move kind of slowly; they're so easy to evade. You know what that means: second phase, naturally. In short order, it predictably alters its attack plan, splitting into two smaller lava creatures, both of which rotate about counterclockwise before launching alternating charge attacks. Still nothing I can't capably handle. And then there's a phase three in which both lava creature split into two tinier lava creatures, now making for a total of four; they gather into a formation before streaming over to my side of the room, where they begin rotating around the lone platform. And after all that talk, I wind up dying due to a combination of my failure to locate an adequate safe space (their platform-cycling leaves almost no room to maneuver) and repeatedly jumping into the lava after misjudging my distance on jumping attacks.

The rematch goes more smoothly, as I discover than I can lie down flat on the lone platform and tactically evade the lava balls' rotating motion. Victory results in the halting of the volcano area's volatile activity and the release of Taylor, my blue dinosaur friend. He provides me a sled, using which I can swiftly slide across icy surfaces. I'm forced to put it to use in the proceeding tutorial room, whose exit transports me back to my house. I think I'll take Taylor out for a spin in the caverns to the west, where I located a series of Super Mario Bros.-style warp pipes. His speedy movement and tail-whip attack might prove useful where I'll be going. Along the way, I win a bubble-shooting whack-a-mole mini-game and win the fairy special item. I have no idea what it does.

The pipe maze turns out to be a whole lot of nothin'--just an intricate means of hiding a health-recovery item. So I head back to the watery cavern near the first boss, where that wilted sprout lay. I lose the services of Taylor when I forget that his color isn't an indication of an ability to survive in water (forgive me--it's been years since I've played Adventure Islands II and 3), so I'm forced to navigate the cave's underwater section on my own. Swimming requires holding down the button, which feels so awkward in practice. I don't like this at all. I'm hoping the game has a limited amount of subaqueous exploration.

And what's this? I've found myself a half-heart?! More of that Zelda influence, no doubt. It doesn't do much for me now, but at least I've finally found out what that second-to-last cell in the HUD is for (I thought for sure that it was meant to display currently selected special items).

I bumble around for near-20 minutes before I realize that I can access the icy abyss that opened up in the game's first cave following the lava boss' defeat (apparently my old pterodactyl friend is somehow responsible for removing these barriers). A few screens in, I encounter a mildly threatening walrus mini-boss. All it does is slide back and forth, occasionally with accelerated speed. It leaves behind a spear weapon that I can stab in three directions (left, right and upward). I correctly deduce that I can thrust the spear into the underside of the on-rail log platform and unconventionally ride my way over to uncharted territory.

The sled allows me to speed across the icy cavern and clear expanded gaps with my jumps. My hasty traversal leads me up to a snowy mountain. I want to move to the east, but a guardian penguin won't let me pass through his gate unless I possess "P-Power," whatever the hell that is. I don't have to look far to find it; right across the way, fairly close in proximity, is a mini-game challenge that I win by shoving a penguin off an icy peak. My prize is a P-Power emblem. The game provides no explanation for what it does. Maybe it's a merely a status symbol?

That appears to be the case. Upon recognizing my amazing P-Power, the guardian penguin let's me through without incident.

I sled my way through another network of icy caverns and come face to face with the game's third boss--a snow-covered crane monster that grabs ice blocks from the room's center platform and attempts to drop them on my head; if a block misses its target, it bounces back toward the center platform, so I have to remain alert even after dodging the initial drop.

The battle is tense, but I'm able to defeat the crane monster without much struggle (having an excess of health didn't hurt). Vanquishing it allows me to free Don-Don, my purple pterandon friend; he provides me an umbrella weapon as thanks. When I put it to use in the following tutorial area, I learn that it affords me the ability to slowly float down to the ground and therein greatly extend the range of my jumps (it's Princess Peach's parasol, basically). It's an easy decision to swap out Taylor for Don-Don, who can fly freely through the air and grant me unmatched accessibility. Also, he can assault enemies by dropping rocks on them. Though, isn't it a little too early for the game to be providing me Don-Don's services? How, I wonder, will the level designers prevent him from completely breaking the game? I'll find out imminently, I guess.

With Don-Don assistance, I can travel anywhere I please, bound only by the sky's cloudy barriers. Yet for now, the way forward seems to be the water section whose entrance was previously clogged up by that giant ice cube. Don-Don won't be of much use to me here.

My aquatic exploration leads me to the domain of a squid mini-boss, whose quickly executed two-step bobbing pattern makes it the most versatile of its kind. I played it recklessly and won what was essentially a battle of attrition. Yikes--it's a good thing I made the effort to search for health expansions. Taking out the squid nets me a crystal hammer. Maybe it can shatter those obstructive ice cubes? Well, no--it turns out that my new hammer is only good for clearing away a nearby crystalline obstruction. It's probably a decent bludgeoning weapon, but, really, any ranged option, no matter how weak, is automatically a better choice. Still, I find it strange that I've yet to acquire a weapon that's superior to the default throwing-bone.

The path beyond takes me through the drylands and some crystal caves. To advance further, I need to convince a guardian rabbit of my arbitrary "J-Power." Once again, the emblem I seek is up for grabs in a nearby mini-game challenge area. This time I have to button-mash to win a race against a rabbit. This takes me several attempts. I don't see the fun in this at all. There are very few things in video games I enjoy less than button-mashing. But I've earned my arbitrary J-Power, and now it's time to get far away from here.

When I die in the sky area above, I learn that my fairy special item has the power to revive Higgins right where he succumbed. However, it only works once, which I discover when I quickly die again as I fail to escape the spiky water pool in which I was revived. Thanks, fairy! And now I find that I can't teleport back to the last checkpoint because the game won't allow me to be in a place I accessed with a weapon that has since been taken away from me! Instead, it puts me back at an earlier checkpoint near the start of the ice area. Great.

Having Don-Don as my transport trivializes this area's platforming aspect, certainly, but I have trouble hanging onto him because I keep colliding with inconveniently positioned flying enemies during vertical screen-transitions. Instead, I'm forced to rely on my floaty umbrella when the moment calls for negotiating my way over and across long gaps, series of collapsing cloud platforms, and groups of belligerent foes. This area is ridiculously expansive, so every missed jump or untimely death requires minutes of backtracking.

After facing many trials and surviving a lot of close calls, I arrive at the boss' cave. Our opposition, this time, is a crystal spider that skitters about and periodically reveals its life-sustaining orb, which begins firing star-shaped projectiles into the ceiling; from there, they crystallize and then drop to the ground, after which they bounce in Higgin's general direction. The high degree of activity makes it difficult to evasively maneuver about, so I say "Screw it!" and aggressively assault the orb whenever it appears. I'm able to defeat the crystal spider in a battle of endurance. In the end, I was reduced to a single heart, which means that my victory hinged on that extra unit of health I lucked into collecting prior to taking on this battle.

The crystal spider's death leads to the release of Classie, my purple elasmosaurus friend who's able to speedily navigate through pools of water. I could have used her services earlier on in areas that actually contained water sections. Whatever. Classie shows her gratitude by awarding me a surfboard, which I can use to ride along the watery surfaces. That's great and all, but I'm much happier about the fact that I finally have another opportunity to save.

I have no idea where the game wants me to go next, so it's time to do some exploring!

Well, forget that. Right away I notice that the diamond-shaped obstruction in the ceiling near my dino-buddies' cavernous abode has disappeared. But first I backtrack to that tree-climbing mini-game that seemed so impossible early on. And it still is. In order to win, I have to resort to using unsavory tactics (a turbo button, basically), since the game's button-mashing mechanics are so inexplicably opaque. My prize is a compass that functions as a cool 3D map (it displays the areas' full depth and all of their separate passages!). I should have made the effort to obtain this earlier.

In the initial cloudy portion of the newly accessed area, I'm tasked with with winning yet another button-mashing mini-game. It's a simple race against a fox, but I just can't complete it legitimately. I really don't get it: Sometimes Higgins dashes forward in a burst when I preemptively mash during the countdown, but other times he'll simply stand there, refusing to budge an inch. Under the circumstances, I don't feel bad about resorting to the use of a turbo button. Winning the race nets me D-Power, whose purpose is obvious.

This area presents an eclectic mix of environments: cloudy skies, the ocean, and a desert. Our final destination is a labyrinthine pyramid loaded with DuckTales-style fake walls. The fake walls feature craggier textures, so it's easy to tell the difference between the real and the illusory. The pyramid's endlessly-stalking flame and ghost enemies are absolutely obnoxious, so I'm hoping that they're limited in number. I mean, traversing through these narrow corridors is already difficult enough.

Eventually I run into the pyramid's mini-boss--a skeletal bat that swoops from one side of the room to the other, each time stopping to release two smaller skeleton bats that orbit around the room's center until disposed of (it's basically a reskin of the previous bat mini-boss). It leaves behind a boomerang, the first useful offensive-weapon upgrade; when tossed, it travels straight ahead and returns to Higgins in an arcing motions, covering a lot of ground in its travels. Also, it can be tossed upward, which finally affords me an effective means of dealing with enemies that fly in from above! It's most useful here for triggering the hanging switches that control the slide-away barriers.

A long-winding series of secret passages leads me to the boss area. Our host is a floating eye with hands. It continuously hooks around the room's two platforms, each time shifting to one of three separate locations. Its hands periodically lunge toward Higgins, attempting either punches or grabs--sometimes two in succession. I experiment to find that the boomerang and the spear are the only weapons that can damage it. I settle on the former, since it has much-superior range. The boss temporarily reveals its spectral frame any time I make contact with its eyeball.

In the second phase, it dispenses with the trickery and takes its true ghostly form. It then begins shooting single fireballs in sets of three, though it now remains stationary. I defeat it on my fifth attempt (I had so much trouble finding its first form's vulnerability and discern its offensive scheme). Seriously--I had to spend ten minutes at a time getting back to the pyramid and re-negotiating my way through it just so I could observe a bit more of its pattern each time. Talk about unforgiving. I mean, what does Hudson think this is--an Adventure Island game or something? Yikes, man.

But the final of five subordinates is now out of the way, and I've rescued the last of my dinosaur friends. Meet Poley, my tripertaurus friend (I've forgotten what his abilities are). He provides me the iconic skateboard, which functions exactly how you'd expect (speedier land travel).

The scene shifts back to my house, where the main villain again materalizes. This time, of course, he successfully kidnaps Tina using his considerable inhaling power, prompting us to head to the final area. Actually, it's directly to the left of our house. I mean, it's literally right there. Until now, the path was blocked off by what was apparently the palm-tree equivalent of the Berlin Wall. The cave entrance is marked by the ominous, evil-looking face that has been sculpted into its surface. It gives way to an eerie dungeon. Well, this is it.

I decide to bring Pokey along for the journey. I discover that he can walk along the surface of quicksand and execute a spin attack from any position. Though, I get the feeling that he won't be much of much help to me in the endgame. In fact, I'm surprised that there hasn't been a single instance wherein a dinosaur's use is necessary. You'd think that a dino pal's abilities would come in handy in the area that was unlocked via its rescue, but no--they're merely optional, their use down to a matter of preference. I have no doubt that they'll aid me greatly in the expeditious procurement of health upgrades and special items, but I find it strange that the designers didn't think to construct platforming challenges that require the use of the dinosaurs' special abilities.

As I travel the mostly linear path, I encounter the final mini-boss--a snake skeleton that can hop along quicksand without restriction. Higgins has to struggle against its pull, of course, but this doesn't prove troublesome; there's no real danger here, after all. All the snake does is leap about the room with bad intentions, the height of its lunging attacks randomly determined. I don't even need Pokey's assistance for this.

Destroying it nets me another iconic Adventure Island weapon: the stony throwing-hammer! It doesn't cover as much ground as the arcing boomerang, but it's undoubtedly superior in strength. I'll keep it equipped for symbolic purposes; it seems only appropriate to finish off the last boss with Higgin's most trusted weapon. Like the boomerang, the hammer's use is required for triggering switches, the ones here affixed to the walls.

I reach the dungeon's boss room surprisingly quickly. Waiting in side is not the main villain but instead a floating eggplant wizard (maybe there's more to the game after this?). In alternation, it spits out fireballs and eggs that spawn either single medium-sized eggplants or three tinier, more nimble eggplants. The former begins rebounding around the room if I don't destroy it immediately. I fail spectacularly in my first attempt (now that Tina is gone, it's Don-Don who brings me back to consciousness; he does so by dropping a rock on my head).

I fare much better the second time around. The eggplant wizard falls before me. And, well, that actually was the final boss. The evil face was in reality the incorporeal form of the eggplant wizard. I was expecting there to be a second phase, but no--this appears to be it. It has to be. The activities witnessed in following are the trappings of an ending sequence: Higgins frees Tina from the sack within which she'd been stuffed. Suddenly, the dungeon begins to explode. Just when it looks as though all is lost, Don-Don conveniently swoops in and carries them away; he drops them off at a nearby seashore. Now safe, Higgins and Tina wave good-bye to Don-Don and begin to walk along the beach as the credits display above them. When the final name finishes scrolling off, the pair decides to rest in front of a palm tree, in front of which they sit, arm and arm. From there they watch the clouds and exchange loving glances, their mood all lovey-dovey.

And that's it. That's our abrupt game-ending scene. The boss didn't reveal a super-powered final form or anything as epic. 

But you know what? That's fine. By then, Adventure Island IV had already made its point. Yeah, I'm a bit disappointed that the endgame sequence lacked the same feeling of chill-inducing immensity that, say, a trek through Tourian's haunted corridors might evoke, but I can't complain too much. The game did enough.

And that wraps it up. I did fail to collect all of the heart pieces and special items--none of which are mandatory, mind you--but I'll be sure to pick them up during my second play-through (necessary because I need to snap some screenshots).

So there it was--Adventure Island IV, that game I played more 15 years ago. I had a good time with it, as I'm sure I did in my first play-through. I'm glad that I got the chance to become reacquainted with Hudson's lost gem at this particular point in my life, when I have such a great platform for sharing my experiences. I've been waiting for years to rediscover and write about this game. In fact, Adventure Island IV, though I remembered very little about it, was one of the games that inspired the creation of the "Treasure Trove" section of this blog.

Originally I was going to wait until later in the year to dig it up, but I'm glad that I jumped the gun. I'm thrilled that I was able to re-experience Adventure Island IV while surrounded by the still-lingering sounds of summer, which is the time of year that always comes to mind when I think about it.

So how is it that I wasn't able to remember much of anything about the game? Well, first I should state the reason why I believe that a series of abstract, formless mental renderings continued to strongly resonate with me in place of the actual product. Now that I've had time to think about it, I'm certain that my nostalgic feelings for Adventure Island IV have less to do with the game, itself, and more to do with the point in time in which I discovered it. We're talking about that early-2000s period when the Internet still had that fresh, wondrous aura to it and so much about gaming's history remained a mystery to me. Back then, when the burgeoning emulation scene was opening the door to worlds beyond, there was a sense of enormity--of surreality--to each of my discoveries. Every day brought with it new knowledge; one revelation after the next taught me that the gaming universe's scope was far more vast than I'd ever imagined.

In such a climate, the NES, which had long since had its day in the sun, once again seemed as relevant as ever. Suddenly it was 1989 all over again. All of those obscure and awe-evoking titles I was digging up and enjoying might as well have been brand new releases. The console's spirit had been reawakened, its resurgent energy fueled by all of the wonderful games that longed to escape from the shadows of history. Adventure Island IV, the endlessly fascinating lost sequel, is emblematic of their class--emblematic of the games that make me nostalgic for the early-2000s.

And that is the reason why I so fondly remember Adventure Island IV, a game that so perfectly captures the spirit of an amazing era.

I say this not to undersell what Adventure Island IV accomplishes as a game. Truly it offers a rock-solid action-adventure experience. It strives to depart from the standard Adventure Island formula, yet it works hard to retain the essence of its predecessors. It presents to you a world that has clear limits, yet it never surrenders its sense of boundlessness. The soundtrack's nostalgic brush leaves its residue all over the game's landscape, imbuing it with that disarmingly endearing 8-bit quality. It's not a spectacular Metroidvania game, no--it has too many frustrating design quirks, and it leaves too many of its ideas unexplored--but it's plenty inventive and boasts a wide variety of fun tools, interesting platforming challenges, and evocative environments. The word that kept coming to mind as I played it was delightful, which I think is the most apt description of Adventure Island IV.

There are a few flaws that prevent it from attaining the rank of top-tier action-adventure game: It's annoying having to spend ten-plus minutes backtracking through several areas every time you die. The controls for button-mashing mini-games--some of which reward key items--are highly suspect. And most of the weapons, like the dinosaur helpers, have limited to no use. I didn't break out the skateboard a single time after I finished using it in the tutorial area. What's the point when the ground is littered with enemies and you can't use a weapon while riding it? Why do I need a surfboard when there are few places to us it? Why would I bother using inadequate weapons like the spear, the torch and the two hammers after they've served their immediate purpose? Don't get me wrong--I like that they were all included, but I wish that the designers had given me more of a reason to use them. Adventure Island IV is loaded with potential, but sadly it misses too many golden opportunities.

Yet I wouldn't hesitate to recommend it to a fan of the genre. Anyone who loves action-adventures games or Adventure Island should play it. To those of my ilk, its value is immeasurable. I love that it exists.

I don't know when or if our paths will ever cross again, but Adventure Island IV--even if it again finds itself reduced to but a series of mental images--will retain a special place in my gaming memories. Playing it makes me wish that the 8-bit cold have endured just a bit longer--that developers could have seen the value of squeezing every last drop of potential out of these old machines. Adventure Island IV, the last Famicom game ever released, provides evidence that the console still had more to offer to the world--that its run didn't have to end there.

The archaeologist in me is sad that those old 8-bit consoles didn't leave more for us to discover, but it's ecstatic to know that they made up for it by endeavoring to safeguard hidden treasures like Adventure Island IV.

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