Monday, January 23, 2023

Game 481: Zombie Hunter (1987)

      
Zombie Hunter
Japan
Lenar (developer); Hi-Score Media Work (publisher)
Released 1987 for NES, 1988 for MSX
Date Started: 20 January 2023
Date Ended: 20 January 2023
Total Hours: 4
Difficulty: Hard (4.0/5)
Final Rating: 23
Ranking at Time of Posting: 208/483 (43%)
    
Zombie Hunter came up on a random roll recently and I thought I'd give it a try. It's been a while since I dipped into an NES game. This is an early one, released only in Japan, but someone named KingMike created a translation. According to some sites, Activision had planned a U.S. release under the name Zombie Master, but it never came to fruition.
   
The game is a side-scrolling action platformer in the vein of Ghosts 'n Goblins (1985), but with enough RPG elements to meet even my definitions. (Some sites trace its lineage to Zelda II, but they were released awfully close together.) You get experience points for enemies you kill; leveling up affects not just maximum health but also attack and defense scores; you find a full set of equipment to wear and wield; and you can even stop and grind. 
        
An action shot as I leap over an enemy, only narrowly missing a spike on the ceiling.
           
The backstory has the game set in the City of Palma, where the elemental forces existed in harmony, balanced by something called the Life Seeker. But Dolog, the Spirit of Earth, decided to seize power for himself and stole the Life Seeker. Ariel, the Spirit of Wind, has commissioned a hero to enter Dolog's domain and retrieve the artifact. There's nothing about zombies in the backstory, and nothing in the game really seems to be a zombie, so I don't know where the title comes from. It's not translated; it's Zombie Hunter even in the original Japanese.
      
      
Where a lot of games of this type feature a constant stream of enemies, the setup here is different. As you arrive on each screen, one or more enemies spawn. You can't move on until they're dealt with. If you successfully kill them all, you get a treasure chest with gold and occasionally an item. But if one of them (or, at least, the key one--I wasn't always sure about this) manages to flee the screen, you miss out on the gold and item. Fortunately, you can cause screens to respawn as many times as you like.
    
My understanding is that the items dropped by the enemies are fixed in the default game, but have a somewhat small probability of appearing (maybe 10 or 20 percent), so you have to fight them several times if you want to be sure of finding everything. This is good, as you have to grind to get enough strength to defeat the enemies.
      
Leveling up.
     
Enemies are tough. Every one of them has a ranged attack. (To be more specific, they only have ranged attacks, as touching them doesn't hurt you.) Many of them fly. You have to try to duck or jump to dodge their attacks while simultaneously swinging your own weapon--the very sort of multitasking at which I'm horrible. This is not the sort of game at which you want to be horrible because there's no respawning or saving. You're meant to complete it in one go with one life.
    
Equipment comes in three varieties: wearable (helms, armor, rings, gauntlets), usable (potions, food, candles), and weapons. The latter category includes both ranged and melee weapons. Each item has a power value to indicate its relative worth. My favorite weapon was the bomb, which you drop in the enemy's path like a mine. But different encounters require different weapons, and a blind player has no way to anticipate the encounter. You wander on a screen, and enemies spawn from the ground and ceiling. This is the kind of game meant to be played multiple times, for hours on end, with the player's friend or brother saying things like, "Now, remember, this screen is the one where three zombies spawn out of the ground on that platform. You'll want to drop a bomb and then jump to the right."
        
My equipment around mid-game.
      
One oddity to weapons is that everything except a regular sword degrades as you use it, ultimately disappearing. So you have to keep the best regular sword that you can find as a default weapon, switching to other weapons only when you absolutely need them.
 
I never figured out what some items did, like poison or bags. Candles let you see in the dark; all levels after the first are dark by default, which means enemies are presented only as outlines and you can't see their names or current health. But at some point, I bought a "Candle 8" that never wore out, so darkness wasn't a problem for me. 
         
No, I don't think those flying blobs are "zombies."
        
The game is organized into a series of levels, each culminating in a "boss" encounter with a dragon. To get to the dragon, you have to find a key in one of the loot drops along the way. If you make it to the door without having found the key, you have to turn around and head back. There are six total "phases," but after you defeat each dragon, you've given a choice of two paths, each with a different configuration of enemies and items. This lends a little replayability to the game.

Killing the first boss.

          
Platforming elements appear as the game goes on. There are ledges to jump on, spiked pits (and ceilings) to avoid. You can fall "down" off the level and you have to fight a bunch of monsters to get back. 
       
A Katana 5 is a good weapon but degrades fast.
      
There are occasional doors to shops that buy any excess stuff and sell a limited selection of items. The only way I could stay alive was to find a shop that sold healing potions, grind like crazy until I had enough money to fill my inventory with said potions, and then make my way to the next shop. 
   
Despite this strategy, and despite abusing save states, I nearly abandoned the game several times. I kept moving too fast, not grinding enough, and then getting myself stuck with no healing potions between groups of enemies I couldn't defeat. But every time I was on the verge of giving up, I looted a healing item at the last minute, or I found a shop. Towards the end of the game, I had more gold than I could spend, even filling my inventory with potions.
       
Shouldn't have backed me into a corner, Dolgo.
     
Dolgo himself, a large ogrish creature that I swear I've seen somewhere before, is the final boss. Like the dragons, he was considerably easier than the regular enemies just outside his door. When I defeated him, I got a message that I had restored light to the "above ground," and the game finished showing a sunny sky.
       
     
The "The End" screen showed my overall game time (02:53). I guess you're meant to try to get the lowest time. You can also replay on a harder mode ("Game B") in which items are completely randomized and the enemies are more difficult.
      
      
The game GIMLETs at 23, not bad for a console RPG of the era. It's hurt by its silly backstory (1) and a lack of NPCs (0), but I think the "combat," "equipment," and "economy" categories are all worth 3s, and I gave it a 4 in "gameplay" for being short and slightly replayable.  Despite the difficulty, I enjoyed it. I don't know, maybe I'm just in a good mood lately. I liked that the game didn't use any cutesy anime graphics. I thought the leveling system was swift and rewarding. And I appreciated any game in which you can just load up on potions to compensate for a lack of skillz. 
    

45 comments:

  1. I've never even heard of this one. Dolgo looks a bit like the baddie from Ghosts and Goblins, so maybe that's why he seems familiar?

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    1. Probably not. As much as I enjoyed GnG in the day, I doubt I was ever successful enough to defeat the big boss.

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    2. I meant "meet" rather than "defeat." I don't think I ever reached him.

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    3. Maybe the monster in Wonder Boy?

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    4. I thought he looked like the gorgoyle from HeroQuest, the board game adaptation. But I can't find a good image.

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    5. I found an image of the gargoyle mini, and i can still kind of see it: https://koyima.artstation.com/projects/mqaVlZ.

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    6. That's funny I was going to say he looked like a Chaos Warrior from Heroquest with a weird face plastered on

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  2. I have actually played this one! I've been doing a personal playthrough of a lot of these crusty old NES RPGs, and Zombie Hunter wasn't so bad.

    There are, of course, much better ones, especially Japan exclusives, but alas this is the curse of randomly hopping into the console waters without specifically choosing the hits. There are even some pretty good NES approximations of cRPGs, including a very good, memorable port of Pool of Radiance, pitch perfect versions of Wizardry I, II & III, and a weird but surprisingly complete Might & Magic port.

    I wish I could guide you to some of the great originals (Lagrange Point, Chaos World, Dragon Warrior III & IV, the two NES Fire Emblem games, Just Breed, Swords & Serpents, the Deep Dungeon series) but I know you have a process, and this is a computer RPG blog anyhow. Plus, if I'm being honest, the NES wasn't a very good system for RPGs. The SNES and Genesis would both be rather more well regarded for the genre, of course.

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    1. I don't think Chet would be a big fan just because of the control changes, but I thought the NES versions of Ultima III and IV were pretty solid ports. None of the other Ultima console ports were, though.

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    2. Not even the Master System port of Ultima IV?

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    3. The Master System version of Ultima IV is very good indeed, better than the NES attempt, but the MS didn't have the reach of the NES, so most people haven't played it.

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    4. Yeah, I was thinking of the later games in the series. I forgot there was a Master System port of IV, but I agree it's a good one.

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  3. You continue to surprise with relatively obscure console entries into the genre. I never heard of this one and I do check on new RPG fan translations via romhacking.net from time to time. Luckily this seems to be a rather fun representative of the platform RPG variant which seems to exist mostly in the form of Japanese console games. I recently played through Ys III, the official US Turbo CD version, in my attempt to play all Ys games and beside the horrible voice acting had some fun with it.

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  4. I have actually played this one! I've been doing a personal playthrough of a lot of these crusty old NES RPGs, and Zombie Hunter wasn't so bad.

    There are, of course, much better ones, especially Japan exclusives, but, alas, this is the curse of randomly hopping into the console waters without specifically choosing the hits. There are even some pretty good NES approximations of cRPGs, including a very good, memorable port of Pool of Radiance, pitch perfect versions of Wizardry I, II & III, and a weird but surprisingly complete Might & Magic port.

    I wish I could guide you to some of the great originals (Lagrange Point, Chaos World, Dragon Warrior III & IV, the two NES Fire Emblem games, Just Breed), but I know you have a process.

    And this is a computer RPG blog, anyhow. It is an ongoing source of amusement for me, however, that you do tend to be hitting mostly clunkers at random. ;)

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  5. I'm guessing you had this game muted from the start, given your lack of criticism of the awful, awful music.

    This one's extremely obscure (the only real coverage I can find is the standard commentary-free "play through every game" video and a few blurbs. That's always nice to see.

    The comparison to Zelda II seems to be a comparison people are making, not a lineage claim. The release dates are pretty tight for that even in this era (you technically could produce a game like this in five or six months, but it would be pushing it), and the similarities are pretty shallow. Zelda II has far more breadth and exploration potential, but this game has a much better inventory system and much easier combat.

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    1. I did mute it fairly quickly. I didn't find the tune notably better or worse than any other bloopish tune on constant repeat.

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  6. Erick Jonas (Brasilian)January 23, 2023 at 6:02 AM

    Ansioso pelo dia em que o Addict irĂ¡ jogar "Castlevania Simphony of the Night", um dos Actions RPG mais amados no Brasil em todos os tempos.

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  7. "Dolgo himself, a large ogrish creature that I swear I've seen somewhere before"

    Me too, but damn if I could put a finger on it...

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    1. If he were a teensy bit more "cutesy", for lack of a better word, he would fit perfectly into the boss roster of "Wonder Boy in Monster Land" in my opinion. In particular the "Vampire" bears a certain similarity I think... https://strategywiki.org/wiki/Wonder_Boy_in_Monster_Land/Enemies

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    2. He looks like a nightmarish Sonic the Hedgehog.

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    3. Funny Wonderboy is mentioned a few times here. The definitely-not-zombies red blobs immediately reminded me of the red ghosts from WB (top right) https://i.etsystatic.com/12906150/r/il/9ca2ca/1014178335/il_570xN.1014178335_gue5.jpg

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  8. Ah, the mythical City of Palma, its harmony balanced by something called the Life Seeker.

    As opposed to the real life City of Palma, its harmony unbalanced by something called the sangria bucket.

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    1. That's a wonderful joke, but probably too borderline European to be appreciated by the audience of this blog ;)

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    2. AlphabeticalAnonymousJanuary 23, 2023 at 12:54 PM

      Not at all -- many of us still think back fondly to our years spent living in Europe!

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    3. Yeah, I considered that myself, but thought adding an explanatory note would somehow lessen the effect.

      There will always be cultural (though not sure that's the right word in this case...) references not everyone will be able to understand due to different backgrounds - I'm sure I've missed out on many here related to life / growing up in the US, for instance.

      There is still a sizable chunk of the readership that's European, however, thanks to Chet's global appeal and articles on his blog in European publications, so it's probably not entirely for naught - as witnessed by your reaction ;-).

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    4. Palma? It's always nice to visit the capital of Germany's 17th federal state.

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    5. Sorry for the anonymous post, still figuring it all out.

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    6. AlphabeticalAnonymousJanuary 25, 2023 at 10:39 AM

      > ... the capital of Germany's 17th federal state.

      Well, one of the boss monsters *is* named "Kaiser" ...

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  9. I'm glad to hear you liked it, though it's kind of funny given how much you hated Zelda. I've got to admit, it's borderline hilarious seeing you (driven by luck) pick the most obscure, barely-an-RPG NES games possible.

    Tbh, this sounds a bit Metroidvania-y. Have you ever gotten into that genre? Symphony of the Night is amazing, if you're into the vibe.

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    1. I don't see this and Zelda as being very similar.

      I covered Castlevania II about a year ago and completely forgot about it until this comment. I should make an edit above.

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    2. There have also been Japanese non-console games covered here which I think had side-view action elements, like 'Triton', 'Zeliard' or 'Mirai'. I don't remember the details, but seem to recall they might have had even less RPG elements, though.

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    3. Zelda II is the oddball in the classic Zelda series, and the only one with a side perspective instead of overhead (until we get to the 3D games a decade later). This zombie hunter game resembles Zelda II, but not Zelda I.

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    4. No one who was able to pick their games would have picked the pinball RPG, and so I'm grateful for the random selection for that alone.

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    5. This game appears to have linear, unidirectionally linked levels without any exploration or backtracking, which is kind of a defining quality of "Metroidvanias".

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  10. Dolgo looks suspiciously similar to Cell from Dragon Ball Z, although that came later I think.

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  11. Personally,I think this game shares more in common with namco's Dragon Buster.

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  12. Dolgo reminds me a lot of Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty or one of the mascot suit monsters from Power Rangers. He even looks remarkably similar to Squatt, one of Rita Repulsa's main henchmen.

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  13. Some sites trace its lineage to Zelda II, but they were released awfully close together.

    Having played both, I think Zelda 2 (1987) drew inspiration from the less famous "Dragon Slayer 2: Xanadu" (1985). Similarly, other side-scrolling action-based role-playing games can be traced back to Xanadu, but Western reviewers "stop" at Zelda 2.

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    1. Not THIS Western reviewer (game 217) :)

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  14. I am too late to wish Happy New Year, thus... Happy New Chinese Year ? :)

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  15. The city of Palma huh? Didn't know going to a holiday on Mallorca could be this dangerous!

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  16. I don’t think I’ve seen dolgo before, but he looks like an oni, a staple japanese monster. D&D’s interpretation of that was the ‘ogre mage’.

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  17. That boss fight animation was horribly frantic. Is it like that in game?

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    1. Well, yes, but part if it is because I'm not a very good player.

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