We missed out on the prime cuts
In recent years, Konami has become one of the industry’s most notable “bad guys.” Its removal of theP.T. demo from the PlayStation store, prioritizing the production of gambling machines, and its sloppy handling of the Metal Gear license are examples of why it’s viewed so poorly today, but it has truly been sliding from grace for a long time. Many of its once celebrated stable of game franchises have been AWOL for quite a while, leaving us without any signs of life from Contra, Silent Hill, or Gradius. It’s an extraordinarily sad state of affairs, especially if you were ever a fan.
It’s sadder still if you consider Konami’s history. It was once an incredible force of the 8-bit and 16-bit eras, providing innovative games that performed incredible technical feats. It was constantly adding to a cast of memorable characters that developed into a powerful brand. There was a corporate cohesion that rivaled giants like Nintendo and Sega. Yet, somewhere in the early-3D era, it all started coming apart. It was still producing excellent games, but its innovative spirit and brand unity started to dwindle. Eventually, its catalog became awash with various versions of Dance Dance Revolution and licensed games. By 2000, it was a pale shadow of its once diverse self.
North Americans didn’t even really get to see Konami at its best. The late 8-bit era saw it producing classics on the MSX, a home microcomputer that never made it across the pond. Meanwhile, it was also churning out dozens of games for Nintendo’s Famicom. In North America, Nintendo kept a tight leash on their publishers, restricting it to 5 games released annually. In Japan, however, it was free to produce as many titles as it wanted and even had the option of manufacturing them on their own custom cartridges. As a result, Konami became one of the console’s most prolific publishers. Over here, we know them for the Castlevania and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, as well as a few others, but in Japan, it was a whole different ball game.
The Konami Famicom collection is a magical place, trapped in its own little pocket. Even in Japan, a number of the games were licensed titles, which rules out any re-releases, even if Konami was into the business of releasing compilation titles. Which it isn’t, because it’s ashamed of the fact that it once provided enjoyment to its fans.
Regardless, here are a few choice games from its Famicom library that you should maybe consider checking out. As a bonus, I’ll tell you how easy they are to understand if you’re a gaijin who can’t read Japanese.
GANBARE GOEMON (1986)
The Ganbare Goemon series was one of Konami’s more prominent franchises in Japan in the ‘90s, but we only got a few games of the series in the West where’s it’s inconsistently and awkwardly rebranded as Legend of the Mystical Ninja. That started on the SNES, but Japan had the series much earlier on the Famicom.
The first game, Ganbare Goemon: Karakuri Douchuu, started development off as an attempt to reproduce the gameplay of the arcade original, Mr. Goemon, but then went off in a completely different direction. It features a bizarre representation of folklore hero, Ishikawa Goemon, as he attempts to free oppressed citizens from the region’s daimyo. It was a reasonably straightforward game that had you picking up three checkpoint passes in a level in order to pass through a gate and proceed to the next level.
There’s a decent amount of text from the villagers, but you can generally get by if you can’t read Japanese. The most difficult part would be figuring out which building has the first-person mazes, each of which contains a checkpoint pass.
GANBARE GOEMON 2 (1989)
The series would begin getting stranger starting with the next game. Simply named Ganbare Goemon 2, it introduces mainstay sidekick, Ebisumaru, as Goemon’s weird sidekick. Gameplay sticks fairly close to the original but occasionally deviates to straight action to help facilitate the added boss encounters. The shops and stores that you stop at have been extended to include bathhouses and naughty strip shows. There’s a bit more text than there was in the original, but it’s still possible to muddle through if you don’t speak the local language.
KING KONG 2: IKARI NO MEGATON PUNCH (1986)
With King Kong dying at the end of the film, it seems like there wouldn’t be room for a sequel, but it has been tried more than once. King Kong 2: Ikari No Megaton Punch is loosely based off the 1986 movie, King Kong Lives. In the game, the giant ape is revived with the help of an artificial heart and immediately escapes the lab to start wreaking havoc in search of a lady-kong.
The game is a top-down explore-’em-up sort of game, where you must search the maze-like worlds for keys. To progress, you destroy everything in sight by throwing giant boulders or your big furry fist around. Doors hidden under scenery will take you to different worlds, and you must destroy a boss in each one if you have any hope of finding the furry love of your life.
There’s not a whole lot of text in King Kong 2, so have at it, gaijin.
GETSU FUUMA DEN (1987)
The Belmonts may have lived on through Konami’s history, but Getsu Fuuma from Getsu Fuuma Den should have at least received a second chance. While Getsu Fuuma Den lacks the tight controls, well-executed art style, and thoughtful layout of Castlevania titles, it makes up for it with a rad-as-heck aesthetic and unique framework.
In this game, Fuuma must make his way across a series of islands in order to recover three special wave blades. You move across an overhead map until you reach a gate, at which point the action switches to a sidescrolling perspective. On each island, there’s also a first-person maze, not unlike the ones in Ganbare Goemon. It’s an interesting mix that I, personally, prefer to Castlevania II’s take on non-linear gameplay.
Most of the game’s text is strictly related to the narrative. It’s generally possible to muddle through without knowing a lick of Japanese.
KONAMI WAI WAI WORLD (1988)
It all comes down to this, doesn’t it? Konami was already getting prolific by 1988, and when you’ve got it, flaunt it. So it gathered up some of their characters (and some other characters they still had the license for) and crammed them into one big title.
Konami Wai Wai World is a bit of a confused game. You play as Konami mascot, Konami Man (or Konami Lady), and must assemble an all-star team of Konami characters in order to save the Konami-verse from peril. You’ve got Simon Belmont, Goemon, Fuuma, King Kong, Mikey from The Goonies, and a Moai statue. You also have the opportunity to pilot the Vic Viper from Gradius or Twinbee from Twinbee in a scrolling shoot-’em-up stage.
The design of the game is pretty interesting. You can tackle the six stages in any order, and your goal is to hunt through each to find the character imprisoned in them and beat that level’s boss. The levels are somewhat non-linear explore-’em-ups in a similar manner to Metroid. You have to use each character’s abilities to gain access to new areas and find other characters.
You’ll miss out on what Wai Wai World passes as its story, but it should be entirely possible to muddle through it if you can’t read Japanese. Even if you can, everything is written in katakana which can be uncomfortable to read.
GANBARE GOEMON GAIDEN 1&2 (1990, 1992)
While the main series would continue on the Super Famicom and other platforms, a pair of “gaiden” games were released on the aging Famicom. These went a different direction, providing a more traditional JRPG experience, but with all the weirdness of the Ganbare Goemon series.
The first game involves Goemon trying to find his missing pipe. It introduces mainstay characters like the kunoichi, Yae. It also doubles-down on the anachronistic elements that would become a hallmark of later games. It’s an altogether a wackier experience.
Ganbare Goemon 2 is much the same as the first, but once again dials up the wackiness. It was actually released a year after the Super Famicom game that would become Legend of the Mystical Ninja over here in the land of cheeseburgers. It includes such bizarre scenarios as exploring a kingdom made of delicious food and traveling to the moon via a long stairway.
Both games are fun but routine JRPGs. That means a lot of text, which means a lot of Japanese text if you see what I’m getting at.
With Konami’s obsession with Easter Island’s famous Moai statues, it seemed like just a matter of time before a game came along starring one. Moai-Kun is a simple side-scrolling puzzle game, that has you moving blocks to solve puzzles, almost like Adventures of Lolo, but with a new perspective.
Most of the game’s text is in English, so it’s entirely playable by mono-lingual gamers.
KONAMI WAI WAI WORLD 2 (1991)
Konami would return for a sequel in 1991, ditching the licensed characters and sticking with its stock of original creations. The gameplay is entirely different, as well, playing more like a situation rush where every level is different. You play as a new protagonist named Rikkle and choose from three pre-defined sets of classic Konami characters. On the standard side-scrolling stages, you can then pick up a power-up that lets you transform into any of the three.
Other stages have you playing Twinbee or even Gradius, with some other oddities mixed in. Most of the stages play like dumbed down versions of their counterparts, so the Contra stage has you running through the jungle, and the Getsu Fuuma Den stage has you uncomfortably scrolling from right to left.
There’s very little text, so it’s much easier for North American players to enjoy than the first title.
YUME PENGUIN MONOGATARI (1991)
In the fat-shamingest game around, Penta the Penguin’s girlfriend is leaving him because he’s put on too much chunk. Yume Penguin Monogatari is an action side-scroller with a twist. You’re given a time limit to reach the end of the level, but along the way, you have to collect weight-loss drinks to shed off some of those excess pounds. Picking up food will fatten you up further, so it’s best to avoid those cravings if you want to get your girl back. Though, maybe don’t. I’m all for self-improvement but have some self-respect, as well.
You can easily play Yume Penguin Monogatari without knowing Japanese, but you will miss out on Penta getting sassed out by his girlfriend.
CRISIS FORCE (1991)
By 1991, Konami was certainly no stranger to the scrolling shoot-’em-up genre. Crisis Force takes what was learned through the various iterations of Gradius, and cranks the action up. It’s a vertical scroller, which makes it more similar to Raiden, and includes the dual-color upgrade system found in that game. Unique to Crisis Force is the ability to change your ship’s configuration to shoot primarily forwards, backward, or to the sides. It also includes a two-player simultaneous mode, a rarity for shoot-’em-ups on the Famicom. A certain power up even merges the two players’ ships into a new powerful form that allows them to work closer together.
I don’t remember seeing a single word of Japanese on anything but from the title screen, so have at it.
LAGRANGE POINT (1991)
While Konami’s RPG’s will never be as well-remembered as the ones from Squaresoft or Enix, it did have a few on Famicom with their Esper Dream games and the previously mentioned Ganbare Goemon Gaiden games. Their peak, however, is arguably the latecomer, Lagrange Point. Featuring a special chip that allowed for greater audio depth, Lagrange Point sits somewhere near the pinnacle of the Famicom’s technical abilities. The game itself involves dealing with mutants on a space station.
Being an RPG, you’d better be ready to read some Japanese text if you want to play it.
THE BOTTOM OF THE TREASURE BOX
We’d be here all day if I kept listing Konami’s most stunning Famicom titles. There are Famicom Disk System games like Arumana no Kiseki and Meikyuu Jiin Dababa. Arcade ports like Parodius and Twinbee 3. Cutesy games like Akumajou Special: Boku Dracula-Kun and Biomiracle Bokutte Upa. And on and on.
Konami’s Famicom cartridges are dominating; their traditional labels stretched out over most of the cartridge, topped off with an end-label that Nintendo didn’t put on their own cartridge. Later games would incorporate custom chips that expanded their sound capabilities, arriving in taller cartridges to dominate the shelves. In a way, they reflect the content of the games themselves; unique and flashy.
Yet over here, it almost feels like we got the bottom of the barrel. Licensed games that were often impressive graphically, but not in terms of gameplay. If you’re a lover of the late 8-bit era of games, it’s definitely worthwhile to take a dive into Konami’s Famicom pond. The company may be a pale shadow of what it once was, but the mark it left on the Famicom is immense and can never be erased.