Saturday, February 3, 2007

Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode - Review

Golgo 13 was of those games that was released on the NES in America that was based on a Japanese manga - before anyone in the US had any idea what anime or manga or anything like that really was. It stars Golgo 13 (also known as Duke Togo), who is a super-spy in the mold of James Bond, but grittier and tougher. It translated pretty well (both literally and figuratively) to the US and gave us a game with a variety of gameplay modes that ended up pretty fun.

The story of Golgo 13: Top Secret Episode is that a CIA helicopter is shot down while carrying the experimental Cassandra-G virus. An M-16 shell (Golgo 13's weapon of choice) is found in the helicopter, making it look like Golgo 13 was responsible for its shooting. Wanting to clear his name and find this virus before it is used for nefarious purposes, Golgo 13 hears about the international spy group FIXER who believes not that the KGB or Golgo 13 are behind the attack, but another super-secret organization known as Drek is behind it. A man named Condor in East Berlin may be willing to help, so Golgo 13 travels there, meets up with a FIXER agent known as Cherry Grace and proceeds to embark on an adventure that will span the globe from Germany to Greece to the Amazon to Antarctica, meeting up with all sorts of people until finally confronting the head of Drek.

Golgo 13's story is very convoluted. I'm not sure if this is a fault of translation/localization or the way it was originally written. The thing is, despite it being hard to follow, it works. We are used to ridiculous plots from James Bond and this one isn't any more far-fetched. What the connection is between some of the agents and people you meet may be tenuous, but the game maintains the veneer of a spy story throughout and you can go with it. The translation actually seems pretty good as there is no glaring Engrish and what the characters say makes sense for what they are. The game also features a decent amount of violence and implied sex which is surprising given Nintendo of America's censorship policies at the time.

There are about six different gameplay modes in the game which helps keep the game fresh as only one of the modes is really well done. Throughout all of the modes you have both a life total (which goes down when you get hit) and a bullet total. The main mode is the side-scrolling levels where you walk left or right and can jump, shoot, and jump kick. In these levels, you explore the cities or other locations you are in, often being able to move to other areas by going all the way left or right or pressing up in front of a building or passage. These levels are rarely complicated. Occasionally there are two levels of platforms that you can jump up or down to, and there are occasionally pits (that don't kill you but send you back to the water), but platforming itself is not a significant portion of the game. Meanwhile, enemies will often come after you. At first they are fairly normal things like men wielding guns or guys on motorcycles. In later levels you face martial arts women with guns, guys with flame throwers, and men on hovering platforms that shoot odd triangles at you. These side-scrolling levels are also used in the underwater enemy bases. There are some issues with the play control in these scenes. When you shoot your gun, you have no control of Golgo 13 for a short period of time, making you pretty vulnerable. Also, the jumping is a little odd to control. Fortunately, enemies don't tend to do too much damage to you and you get health back when you kill them, so the awkward play control doesn't hurt you too much.

Some stages place underwater when you have scuba gear on. These parts are side-scrolling, but you have full 2D movement as you are in water. You can shoot straight ahead to defend yourself against enemies such as sharks, octopi, and other divers. There are also environmental hazards such as deadly seaweed and mines.

In other stages, you are in a helicopter and the stage plays out like a shoot 'em up. The screen automatically scrolls horizontally while enemies come at you from all sides. Again, there are only three enemy types here - fighter jets, bombers, and weird circular things with balls spinning around them. These levels are the smoothest in terms of play control. They feel really nice to play and I wish more of these stages and more varieties of enemy were present.

In any of the above three stages, at certain points you will experience a shot on screen and go into a first person shooting mode. In these, you control a crosshair with the directional pad and have to shoot at all the enemies that appear. These stages are somewhat reminiscent of Operation Wolf. You can scroll left or right in 360 degrees (very useful when underwater and divers are swimming toward or away from you). Enemies appear on the ground (soldiers, tanks, ships) or in the air (helicopters and fighters) or in the water all around you (divers and submarines). These scenes work pretty well, although the screen scrolls slowly so you will often take a hit before you see an enemy. Also, some enemies fly off the screen and can be hard to find. This is ameliorated somewhat by an arrow pointing you in the direction of the last enemy when there is only one left.

Another major part of the game are the labyrinths. These are first person sections where you move one section at a time and turn at ninety degree angles, similar to old RPGs like Wizardry. Occasionally an enemy will appear in front of you and you press A to make your crosshair appear then move it over the enemy and press A again to shoot. Walls sometimes drop down in front of you and you have to blow the open with a grenade. You start with three grenades and can replenish them by defeating enemies. One more hazard that sometimes presents itself are laser beams that shoot down from the ceiling. With infrared goggles you can see them and attempt to pass by when they are not firing, otherwise you will take damage when passing through them. The final obstacles are typical maze obstacles - pits that drop you to the level below and doors that may be locked and require finding a key. The first few (and surprisingly the last few) labyrinths you enter are pretty easy to navigate. Some will definitely require making a map (or checking the internet).

Finally, there are two sniping sections in the game. These just involve moving your scope until it is over the target then zooming in and firing.

Golgo 13 isn't an incredibly hard game. Once you learn enemy patterns, the side-scrolling sections aren't that difficult. The same can be said of the helicopter sequences. The first person shooting sequences can be tough if you don't kill some enemies right away as they involve several enemies shooting at you at once. Really, the only way you die is if you start a section with low health and get hit by enemies before you can kill them to regain more health. You have unlimited continues and you start over at the beginning of each section so you aren't set far back by dying (though you only have as many bullets as you had when you died). I died a little less than a dozen times before reaching the final boss. Once at the final boss, I died more than a dozen times. He is legitimately difficult and it took me a long time to devise a good strategy to beat him.

When you evaluate the total gameplay of Golgo 13, it probably is just about average. The graphics too, aren't anything special. They are servicable, and the backgrounds in the story scenes are well done even if a lot of work wasn't put into the characters. The sound effects are no great shakes. They are servicable and aren't too annoying. The gun shots sound about real, but all the other sound effects are fairly beepy and bloopy. The sound of the laser beams can be grating. The game doesn't have much music, but what is has is moody and fits well. There are even set moments when certain music plays giving it a sort of cinematic feel.

So, the gameplay is average, and the graphics and sound aren't anything special either, so is this game worth playing? Yes, I think so. It has a certain coolness factor that just makes you want to keep playing. It tells its spy story well, even breaking it down into acts with names like "The Moving Target" and "From Here to Eternity" and "And There Were None". The storytelling, done in a proto-Ninja Gaiden fashion, just works. You feel like a super spy and the sex with the ladies and fighting cyborg Hitler clones just add to the atmosphere. Style can go a long way with me and it pulls this game into fun territory.

Rating: 7 / 10

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