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CONSOLE: Turbo-Grafx 16 DEVELOPER: Advance Communication PUBLISHER: NEC
RELEASE DATE (NA): August 29, 1989 GENRE: Platformer
// review by SoyBomb

Summon the courage to play this game.

There was a time when NEC Corporation was actually a large player in the console wars of olde. In the early days of release, its console, the Turbo-Grafx 16 (known as the PC Engine in Japan) was selling far more units than Sega's Genesis (or Mega Drive, as it was known). So it seemed reasonable to expect that they could have similar success overseas in the coveted North American market, which, at the time, was potentially twice as large as that of Japan. And initially, they were right: the TurboGrafx-16 did shift a commendable number of units at first. Eventually, however, the TurboGrafx-16 dropped to a dismal fourth place in sales behind the Sega Genesis, the SNES, and even the NES, which was starting to show its age by that point. Why exactly did it fall so far? Maybe it was poor marketing from NEC Corporation. Maybe it was word-of-mouth when it was discovered that the "16-bit" console was not quite as powerful as expected (in essence, a souped-up 8-bit console). Maybe it had to do with its limited palette of games, affected by Nintendo's exclusivity grip over developers and publishers at the time. No one factor alone contributed to NEC's fall in the gaming industry.

Of course, I have my own theory: maybe it was because of the pack-in game provided with each console, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. Not only is this game of questionable and often goofy quality, it also fails to show off the capabilities of the TurboGrafx-16 console. In short, Keith Courage is to the TurboGrafx-16 as Alex Kidd is to the Sega Genesis: a frighteningly weird piece of software.

Keith Courage was actually an Americanized version of "Mashin Eiyuden Wataru", its Japanese equivalent that was based on an anime series known as Spirit Hero Wataru. In the Japanese version, you played as Wataru Ikusabe, a sword-wielding fourth-grader who could transform into a dragon called Ryūjinmaru. And instead of Alpha Zones, Wataru visited the Sōkaizan to reclaim it from the King of Makai. Obviously North American audiences had little or no knowledge of this series, so they had to change a few things around. Wataru Ikusabe was renamed "Keith Courage", the gnarliest name the localization team could possibly devise. As a member of the Nations of International Citizens for Earth (or... N.I.C.E.), Keith now dons a Nova Suit and visits the Alpha Zones to rid the world of the effects of the Beastly Alien Dudes (B.A.D.). This game obviously does not run on the strength of its story, because this just isn't right.

Keith Courage is so awesome, he can stab a gun.

The game is seven levels long, each of which are divided into two sections. In each of the first sections, you play directly as Keith Courage, man about town, in what can only be described as an "overworld". He looks happy to be there, brandishing his small dagger and stabbing away as the onslaught of cute characters (including a surprising number of Maneki-nekos, the Japanese waving cats that supposedly bring good luck) parade infinitely toward you. In the overworld, you get to kill as many lowly creatures as possible with the hope that they will drop you some money. There are also many huts in each overworld containing people who either say something inane or have something useful for sale, like a better sword for later or a health refill. These levels feel like they go on forever, and they certainly wouldn't qualify in any way as an evolution in platforming, even for 1988.

Suddenly, once you reach the end, Keith Courage is airlifted to the sky by a rainbow beam and we see a very brief transformation sequence featuring mild-mannered Keith as he dons his mech-tastic Nova Suit before venturing into the unknown depths of the underworld. You have no clue what just happened. There's no rhyme or reason behind the phenomenon. You look at your drink on the table and ask yourself if you saw anyone tamper with it recently. Playing along is probably best. And then you start to swing your moderately large light-saber sword (upgradeable courtesy of Keith Courage's courageous entry into stores), and the game starts to make sense.

Keith Courage in his suit looks like a plumped-up samurai, but you ignore that point. Suddenly, random skulls start flying at you. Your thick sword slices through them like a bread knife through a fresh loaf of rye bread. By the time completely nonsensical creatures get in your way, your eyes will be wide open and filled with questions. Why is there a character with a GIANT HANDGUN on his FOREHEAD? Seriously, his forehead is its own weapon. I think there may be a few celebrities in Hollywood with a similar issue. The bosses are creepy as well, ranging from twin robots with pepper shakers for hands to a mustached cricket with a pink top hat. The underworld of Earth is a scary place indeed. I'd advise Exxon not to drill too far down.

Now do this seven times, and you have Keith Courage in Alpha Zones, the zones likely being the areas below the Earth's surface... I think. But it's not the greatest game to showcase a new console. The gameplay doesn't shout "innovative" or even, at times, "on par with what came out on seemingly inferior consoles this year". The graphics are definitely a step above the rival NES and Sega Master System, but they still don't show off how awesome owning a Turbo-Grafx 16 should be. The music is shrill at times and just downright boring at others. Keith Courage in Alpha Zones is generic. Horribly generic. Perhaps the Japanese version had some character (and an anime series to draw from), but the localization team sucked the personality out of the game and left only its shell. We can't blame Turbo-Grafx 16's complete American desecration on Keith Courage alone, but it certainly didn't help the console move off the shelves.

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