Thursday, October 29, 2020

Bela Lugosi: The Ultimate Dracula


The character of the vampire lord, Count Dracula, as made famous by Irish author Bram Stoker, is one of the most recognized and iconic figures in not just horror fiction, but ALL of popular fiction. There are very few people in the "developed world" today, I'd wager, who didn't at least have a general passing knowledge of who Dracula is. He's been depicted in everything from serious works of art, to toys, to comics, to cartoons and even sketch comedy. But the medium in which he became most famous, naturally, was film. 

There have been many, MANY depictions of Dracula in film, by some counts, the character has made over 200 film appearances, allegedly second only to Sherlock Holmes. But again, I would wager that more people, especially young people, know who Dracula is, than even the great detective. Narrowing it down a bit, there have been, at the LEAST, around or probably over 40 films made that center around the character of Dracula more specifically, most of them direct adaptations, of some manner or other, of Stoker's original novel. But while several of those film depictions of the Count have been quite memorable, some even iconic, there is one who, I think it's completely fair to say, stands head and shoulders above all the rest.

Lugosi in the original Broadway play.

Béla Ferenc Dezső Blaskó, otherwise known as Bela Lugosi, was born on October 20th, 1882, in Lugos Austria-Hungary, what is now known as Lugoj, Romania. Meaning that, ironically, the man who would go on to become synonymous with the character of Dracula, was originally from the same basic land that was also home to the Count's native Transylvania. Lugosi dropped out of school at age 12 (something not at all uncommon in those days), and began his acting career in the very early 1900s. After years acting in stage plays in Hungary and elsewhere, he got his first silent film role in 1917. He went on to act in several Hungarian and then German films, before finally leaving Europe for political reasons, to immigrate to the United States in 1920. After living and working in the States for many years, both as a laborer and immigrant actor, by 1931 he finally became a naturalized citizen. 

Lugosi's acting work in America started out in his native Hungarian, playing to immigrant crowds. His first English speaking role came in 1922, and for his first several English plays, he had to learn his lines phonetically, as he could not yet speak English very well. During the 20s, he also acted in several silent films, the first of which being J. Gordon Edwards' The Silent Command. But the role that would come to define his career, for better and for worse, fell into his lap in the late 20s. In the summer of 1927, he was approached to play the role of Count Dracula in a Broadway production, which would go on to be a smash hit, playing 261 times before embarking on a national tour that ended in California. 

A poster almost as iconic as the film's actor.

When Universal Pictures optioned the rights to the play and began production in 1930, as hard as it may be for many to imagine, and in spite his own lobbying for the role he felt was his, Lugosi was actually not the studio's first choice to portray the title role. After considering many other actors, in part because he lobbies hard and won them over, but also reportedly in part because he agreed to take the role for considerably less money than he could have commanded, Bela Lugosi did, however, win the role that so badly wanted to portray on the "silver screen". 

Spanish Dracula

Spanish Renfield

Spanish Van Helsing

In an unusual, but in those days not uncommon occurrence, Universal had two productions of Dracula filming at the same time. The more famous English production would film during the day, and then when they were done, the Spanish production would use the exact same sets at night. For many years, the Spanish version of the film was actually thought to be lost, though surviving prints were eventually found. It would seem that to many film historians and even some film buffs, this Spanish language film is considered "superior", mainly due to a few, in my opinion minor points. For one thing, the Spanish production apparently had the advantage of watching the English "dailies", watching their camera-work etc., and were able to try and improve upon it, such as the camera moving up the stairs to zoom in on Dracula when he first appears to Renfield. They also added a bit more "flair" in certain scenes, such as smoke rising from Dracula's coffin when he awakes, and things like that. Lastly, the Spanish film, for whatever reason, clocks in at nearly 20 minutes longer than the English version, which some feel gives the story a bit more room to breath, and a bit more time for character development. 

Personally, however, I reject the notion that the Spanish version is "superior". I absolutely recognize the longer running time, slightly more lavish special effects, and somewhat more complex camera-work. But to me, none of these things really "improve" the story itself to a significant degree. I think for what it was, especially considering it was made on a smaller budget than the English version, the Spanish film is well done, and a solid movie overall. But as far as I'm concerned, there really is no contest between the two, and I'll explain why. 

English Dracula

English Renfield

English Van Helsing

The English version has also been criticized by some critics retroactively, for being "too much like silent film". And I honestly, for the life of me, don't understand how this is a legitimate complaint. Director Todd Browning, though he left a lot of the actual filming to Director of Photography Karl Freund, was a successful director of silent films. He reportedly was never quite comfortable with sound films, and this being one of very first, it shows. But as far as I'm concerned, his silent era proclivities are not a hindrance to the movie, but rather, a strength. The film has a lot of silent moments, with hardly any music (which wasn't unusual for early sound films anyway), and a lot of long, still shots. To me, this lends to the creepy atmosphere, mood and tone of the story. The darkness, silence and stillness, lend the film, in my opinion, a much spookier and more menacing air, than the busier, more technically complex Spanish production. 

The acting in this movie, has also been described by some as basically being stage acting, which, again, I don't find any real fault in. For one thing, Bela Lugosi and Edward Van Sloan, had already played Dracula and Professor Van Helsing respectively, opposite one another hundreds of times in the play. Which, I might add, attributes itself both to their chemistry together on screen, working off of each other so very well. But it also explains, as far as I'm concerned, why they both seem so comfortable and natural in their roles. Because they had literally already played them to death. And really, I think along with what I personally consider more appropriate cinematography for the tone of the film, that the acting is really the shining strength that makes the English, not the Spanish version, the "superior" 1931 Dracula

Perfect in their roles.

While I have no wish to slight the acting job of the Spanish crew, to me at least, the acting in the English version of Dracula, is simply better. It's top tier, in all of the major roles, and even in some of the smaller ones. One such smaller role that really stands out, as a bit of valuable comic relief, is that of the Seward Sanitarium attendant, Martin, played Charles K. Gerrard. His thick, Cockney-esque accent, delivering humorous jabs in his interactions with the insane Renfield, are genuinely funny, and shine appropriately comedic light on the otherwise macabre nature of the man eating flies and spiders. Helen Chandler and David Manners also stand out, as the haunted Mina Seward, and her concerned, protective lover John Harker. 

But the three characters who truly steal the show, and carry the film, are appropriately the three biggest roles. First off, it should be mentioned that Dwight Frye was an incredible character actor of his era, bringing both capable physicality, and true dramatic chops to his roles. The role of Renfield, I think, is arguably the finest of his career, and certainly the most complex of the entire film. Renfield starts off a very decent, if somewhat simple, and good-natured, well meaning real estate solicitor, who was hired by Dracula to arrange for his purchase of the decrepit Carfax Abbey in England. But after Dracula gets control of him, becomes a man quite literally possessed, a tortured soul who hates and mourns what he is made to do, and what he has become, but is also thoroughly controlled by his cravings for "smaller lives" (flies, spiders and other bugs), and his fearful loyalty to his "master". 

Frye expresses such a fantastic range of emotions as this character, from well mannered and even joyful, to outright menacing and stark raving mad. And then of course there are his periods of solemn, remorseful sadness. By comparison, Pablo Alvarez Rubio as Renfield in the Spanish version, is convincingly manic and insane. But he also comes off, at least to me, as a bit TOO over the top with his craziness. Dwight Frye's performance, even at its most manic, just comes across as more subtle and menacing. He also, to me, feels like more of a conflicted character. All around, his performance is an absolute highlight to the film.

Dracula descending.

The true "meat and potatoes" of the story, of course, is the mental chess game, and actual conflict, between the characters of Van Helsing, and Count Dracula himself. As stated before, I feel that Edward Van Sloan and Bela Lugosi were perfect for these roles, both because they had already made these roles their own on stage, but because their individual personas, acting idiosyncrasies, and even their accents, in Bela's case natural, were perfect. For his part, Van Sloan as Professor Van Helsing, is great to me, tied in my mind with Peter Cushing's portrayal of the character in the later Hammer films. He is all at once wise and very learned about supernatural and scientific matters, even a tad arrogant while also still coming off as politely humble. He is a charming and commanding presence, who garners the respect and often obedience of those he is trying to help, merely by his presence and personality. He is a self-assured, yet cautious hero, who would rather quietly observe, waiting for the right moment to strike, rather than rush in foolishly. He is a man of action, but only when the proper situation presents itself. 

Eduardo Arozamena, Van Helsing in the Spanish version, does a perfectly fine job in the role. In fact he shares some of the characteristics of the character as Van Sloan does. But at the same time, his Van Helsing also seems to bit more of a timid, even bumbling old man, at times even somewhat fearful of Dracula, something that Van Sloan's Professor never is. Whether he is faced with Renfield's madness and threats, or Dracula's brooding yet charming menace, Van Sloan's portrayal of the good doctor, never once bats an eye. Not that he isn't, perhaps, deep down fearful, but because he is confident that he knows how to deal with it.

Even in the iconic scene where they are alone together for the first time, and they both "lay their cards on the table", so to speak, and Dracula tries to mesmerize and control Van Helsing, he does now cower. He does, in fact, momentarily nearly fall under the Count's sway, so strong is the undead fiend's power, but Van Helsing's will proves to be quite strong, as he steadies himself, standing up straight and defying the vampire lord. Lugosi's Dracula expresses, more than once, genuine respect, perhaps even slight admiration for his new enemy. And because of Van Sloan's confident, wizened portrayal of the character, you can actually believe that he truly means it. His Van Helsing earned Dracula's begrudging respect, even though they fully, and openly, intend to destroy one another. 

Those haunting eyes.

As for the person we're really here to discuss, Lugosi as Count Dracula, if you've ever even seen but a small clip, or even just a picture of his performance, really speaks for itself. His exotic, charming yet sinister look, and his natural Hungarian accent, just lent themselves to the character. He isn't an immediately physically imposing figure, not someone who commands instant fright upon first seeing him. And yet, you can also immediately tell there is something more, something dangerous about this persona, and he is not someone you would want to meet alone, in the dark. By comparison, Carlos Villarías' Dracula in the Spanish version, while capably acted, both because of his general mannerisms, but also because of his quite frankly sometimes goofy looking facial expressions, comes across as a far less menacing, sometimes even comical vampire. Again, no offense to Carlos, but to all those who try to claim that the Spanish version is "superior", I don't think his portrayal holds even a small candle to Lugosi's.

Lugosi's Dracula is a monster, no doubt about it, but he is a monster who is not often given to recklessness or foolish chance. Much like his opposite, Van Helsing, he too is a very calculating mind, who plans much and risks little. Not because he is afraid, but because he is a mastermind who is always several steps ahead of most of his victims and enemies. He's a man who has had centuries to learn and hone and perfect his role as vile hunter of the living, and his mental command of the weaker-minded is pretty much unparalleled. He is still supernaturally strong, mentally powerful, and able to change his physical form, etc., just as most versions of the character are. But with Lugosi's portrayal, the characters strength lies more in his cunning, and almost sardonic charm. He's scary, but often more because of what he COULD do to you, or even make you do to yourself, than because of more graphic acts of intimidation or violence. 

Max Schreck's Count Orlok.

Christopher Lee's "Hammer" Dracula

Bela Lugosi's OG Dracula


I think in the minds of most film fans and historians (often little distinction between the two), there are really three main film portrayals of Count Dracula, that are the most memorable and iconic. They are pictured above. While in the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, for legal reasons they had to rename the character Count Orlok, it is still meant to be Dracula. And in all blunt honesty, Max Schreck's incredible turn in that film, is hands down the creepiest. His character eschews any pretense at handsomeness or charm. He looks and acts like the monster he truly is, and his image and performance are no doubt the scariest, if we're talking about pure horror. 

As for Sir Christopher Lee, he played the character of Dracula probably more times, in both Hammer films and outside of that studio, than any other actor. His portrayal is unquestionably the most intimidating and certainly the most actively, visibly violent. But for all of his visual evocativeness, I must say, for all the times he played the character, Lee's Dracula also has the least "character" of the three. That definitely isn't a knock on him, as Lee was a great actor in his own right. But the combination of how he was directed, the scripts he was given (or sometimes chose to ignore), and his own personal choices in portraying the role, while his Dracula is absolutely fearsome, even "badass" as some would rightly say, you could also argue his Dracula has the least "to him", if that makes sense. If anything, he almost feels like more of an evil force, than he does a character.



That pose.


That expression.

That stare.

But for my money, as a film fan, as a horror fan, as a fan of supernatural fiction in general, Bela Lugosi is, as the title of the article states: The Ultimate Dracula. His character is the prefect mixture, of just charming enough, just intimidating enough, and just sinister enough, that he is the complete total package as far as I'm concerned. There are good reasons why it is his portrayal and very image, that is most popularly and most infamously associated with the character. He made that role his own in a way that few actors ever accomplish in their entire career. And this was, on a professional note, both a boon and a curse to him as an actor. That one iconic role achieved him a kind of "immortality" that few ever achieve. But at the same time, being so associated with that role, along with his thick Hungarian accent, also caused Lugosi to become very typecast for the rest of his film career. A fact that he, rightly, hated. He loved the character, so much so that he was buried with the original cape when he passed away, something his family thought he would have liked. But he also hated what it did to his career, a career full of many other iconic roles and great turns. But he could never quite escape The Count, much like his victims in the story. 

Regardless of that unfortunate fact, the truth is, Lugosi was a fantastic actor, a reality that shines in his immortal performance as Count Dracula. The Spanish version made by Universal may well have been more "technically sound" in certain ways. But I hardly think those extra touches make it "superior", and as as stated, I feel that acting-wise, it is most certainly the inferior film. And there have surely been a great many adaptations of the story since 1931, which have been more lavish, more expensive, more technically impressive, etc., including Francis Ford Coppola's 1992 film, which featured Gary Oldman in a very strong performance. But I do not earnestly believe, out of all the films that have come since, or perhaps ever WILL come, that any of them are as simple, pure, and darkly, hauntingly beautiful, as Todd Browning's 1931 classic. That Dracula, as far as I'm concerned, is perfect, and is one of the few films I would give "5 Stars" to. 

Bela Lugosi IS Dracula, to entire generations of people, and deservedly so. If you've never seen the movie, I implore you, this Halloween Weekend, please do yourself a favor and watch it. It is a slow, often understated burn of a film. But it is never boring, always captivating, often creepy, and if you ask me, a pure delight to take in. I'd like to wish everyone a Happy Halloween, and stay safe out there!

Tuesday, September 29, 2020

Godzilla Chronicles: Godzilla vs. The Smog Monster


In the last Godzilla Chronicles entry, we looked at the bizarre, childhood fantasy near-spinoff project known as Godzilla's Revenge, aka All Monsters Attack. But if you thought THAT film was odd, well then buckle in tight and hold onto your seats, because as the old saying goes, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" 

Even by the late 60s, Toho was beginning to feel that the Godzilla series, which had seen a new entry nearly every year since 1962, was beginning to get a bit stale. It was due in part to this, that I'm sure they were willing to allow Ishiro Honda to experiment as he did, with All Monsters Attack. This experimentation continued on the next Godzilla project, but in different ways. With Honda looking to scale back his filming (he actually wound up basically taking a break for a few years), Toho turned, surprisingly, to a new director, Yoshimitsu Banno. A man with very different ideas, and a new take on Godzilla in particular.

Fan art, representing the "trippy" nature of this film.

Banno's biggest conceptual theme that he wanted to build his contribution to Godzilla around, was the environment, and how it was being poisoned by pollution. He saw Japanese cities rife with horrible smoggy air, and Japanese coastlines foaming with crap that people threw into the water. All pretty terrible, disgusting, frightening stuff. And his idea was "Hey, what if this pollution came to life, and became a monster that attacked humanity?" To this end, he created the alien creature, Hedorah, an originally microscopic being from deep space, who came to Earth via a meteorite, and eventually started growing and mutating into an enormous, sludgy mess, after feeding on humanity's ample pollution.

 But clearly, Banno's vision didn't stop at having a strong environmental theme, something in and of itself that was used by several other filmmakers in the 1970s. Likely being a part of it himself, he also wanted to play to what he likely saw as a more "modern" Godzilla audience, one which represented the so-called "Hippy" counter-culture that was going strong at the time. To this end, "Hedorah" features, outside of a couple of major exceptions, a "hipper" young adult crowd at its core of human characters. There's a hip night club featuring "painted" dancers, and a woman singing about the environment. There are montages and animated segments that are VERY "60s". And late in the film there is even a moderately large gathering in the hills of young Japanese "Hippy" types, dancing around a fire and singing songs to...defeat Hedorah with positive vibes? But I'm getting ahead of myself. 

A true Godzilla fan.

Pictured above is die hard Godzilla fan, Ken Yano. His father, Dr. Toru Yano, a marine biologist, has been collecting odd samples from the sea lately, seemingly mutated sea-life, results of humanity's pollution. Ken's mother, Toshie, often acts as his assistant. After discovering a strange "tadpole", Ken accompanies his father to the beach, where he patiently waits while Dr. Yano goes diving to see if he can find traces of this "tadpole", as well as a mysterious sea monster that has appeared, sinking an oil tanker. 

Toru is attacked while underwater, by what turns out to be Hedorah in its early, aquatic form, badly burning his face. A small piece of the monster also attempts to attack Ken on the shore, but only manages to burn the boy's hand. Now fully aware of the existence of Hedorah, Dr. Yano tries to warn the public, using his own tragedy as a cautionary tale. Meanwhile Ken, apparently the world's biggest G-Fan, has a vision of Godzilla saving the world from Hedorah, and firmly believes in his heart that this will actually occur.

One of several odd animated segments, showing Hedorah feeding.

The creature's second form.

It isn't long before Hedorah is no longer satisfied with feeding on oil and pollution found in the ocean. It grows stronger, and metamorphoses into a more amphibious form, which allows it to come up on land, seeking out new kinds of human poison, such as the smoke stacks of factories. As it turns out, not only does the monster feed off of and grow stronger because of pollution, but it is also essentially composed of highly toxic, pollution sludge itself. So much so, that the slime and fumes from its body, are highly dangerous, even lethal, as evidenced by the Yanos' burns. 

But Hedorah becomes even more dangerous, when it displays the ability to shift between its more "frog-like" land form, and a deadly "flying saucer" form, in which it can fly, and pour out highly acidic, toxic exhaust, which is even shown to melt human beings right down to their bones. That alone is highly gruesome and unusual for the Godzilla series, and I'm sure may well have caused some controversy upon the film's 1971 release. But it also needs to be said, that regardless of what one might think of the movie itself, love it or hate it, the monster Hedorah is arguably the most unique ever conceived "daikaiju" the series has ever produced. And it was certainly very well realized by the special effects team for this movie as well. Not just Hedorah's unique, pollution-based nature, but also the fact that it shifts between so many different forms, and evolves throughout the story. If nothing else, Hedorah the monster itself, deserves major kudos for creativity and execution. 

Dreams DO come true!

True to little Ken's vision, Godzilla does indeed arrive in Japan, to show this new monstrosity what's up. Their initial battle goes Godzilla's way, as he basically hands "Frog Hedorah" its ass. But Hedorah doesn't stay defeated for long, consuming more pollution, and transforming once again, into its "Perfect Form", a more upright, bi-pedal form. In addition to this, he uses his "Flying Saucer" form to pepper Godzilla with toxins, and the "Big G" is actually wounded and somewhat defeated himself, to the horror of Ken and his adult friends, Yukio and Miki. 

All seems lost, and for some insane reason, Ken's parents let him go to the aforementioned "Hippy" party up near Mt. Fuji with Yukio and Miki, where a renewed, but equally hopeless battle between Godzilla and Hedorah breaks out. But, as it happens, Dr. Yano and his wife discover almost by accident, that the small Hedorah samples they had been studying, when dried out turn to brittle ash. Dr. Yano theorizes that if a large amount of electricity can be used to essentially "dry out" the giant pile of shit that Hedorah is, it too would become brittle and vulnerable, unlike its seemingly indestructible slime form, giving Godzilla a chance. The army, naturally, sets to work right away, setting up a giant electric trap for the monster, right nearby where the hippies happen to be partying. 




Godzilla lamenting the ignorance of man's polluting ways.


One of the ridiculous visuals in all of Godzilladom.

The battle between Godzilla and Hedorah doesn't go well at first, as Godzilla can't seem to harm the damn thing, and in return gets his eye and hands burnt, and then gets drown in sludge after being thrown into a small chasm. But all would not be lost, as the Yano's plan is put into action, and Big Slimy gets zapped with trillions of volts of juice. The monster's battle damages the apparatus before it can totally dry out Hedorah, but not before it makes the thing vulnerable (FINALLY) to Godzilla's attacks. 

Hedorah tries to flee after finding itself damaged, and as you can clearly see above, to keep hot on the trail of its flying form, Godzilla suddenly decides that HE can fly as well, in perhaps the most ridiculous way possible: by rocketing himself through the air via his atomic breath! This would be the first of several "one use/film only" abilities that Godzilla would conveniently discover, a trend through several of his 70s outings. It also happens to be one of the most comical looking Godzilla moments in the series' history, but it's damn entertaining. 

The awesome Criterion artwork.

Ultimately, the film didn't perform super well, probably in part because of its darker, more gruesome nature, but also probably because of its oddball "Hippy" sensibilities. Long-time Toho Godzilla producer, Tomoyuki Tanaka, reportedly hated it, and allegedly banned Banno from ever directing another Godzilla film, claiming he had "ruined Godzilla". Banno himself was extremely pleased with the final product, and had a sequel planned that supposedly would have taken place in Africa, another unique choice in Toho films. This sequel never happened, however, as Jun Fukuda, director of 60s Godzilla island romps Godzilla vs The Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla, was brought back to direct the following three Godzilla films. 

As for myself, this is one of those Godzilla movies that I didn't get to see until I rented it sometime in my later teen years. I did have the opportunity to own it as a child, as ONE solitary time, I saw the cover for it at my local Walmart VHS rack. But that just so happened to be one time where, for whatever reason, my grandmother to my horror said "No". And thus, there went my ONE chance during my biggest, most fanatical Godzilla fandom phase, to be able to see it, and experience it as only a child/pre-teen can. I wish that I had been able to see it at that age, as surely I wish I had been able to see ALL the "Showa Era" films at that age, along with many other movies I missed out on. Because, quite frankly, before my teens, before depression and the horrible jaded bitterments of adulthood creep in to kill off childhood wonder, everything I experienced as a child, be it music, comics, literature, cartoons, shows, movies, you name it, everything was far more raw, and BIG and pronounced. Seeing these old movies as a kid, even the shittier ones, everything I took in at that age, was, looking back, experienced to the max, to its fullest extent. Versus the more numbed, jaded experiences one has as a "Grown Up". 

Would I have liked, or loved, Hedorah back then? I think so. I think I would have been mortified by the toxic burns and the poor people being melted by that vile Smog Monster. I was like that as a kid, even feeling bad when villains would die in media I watched. I still feel a bit that way as an adult, that little part of my childhood that has never fully submitted to exile. But yes, even though it's bizarre as hell, I think that Godzilla vs. Hedorah has some great moments, and I would have taken the environmental message VERY seriously as a kid. Hedorah is one of the most interesting monsters Toho ever produced, and at the end of the day, it's a GODZILLA movie, so I would have ate it up regardless (even though to be fair, I wasn't fully impressed by Godzilla's Revenge at that age). But this is a movie my grandmother should have gotten, and I should have been able to see back then, because I think I would have ultimately enjoyed it. 


Well, that's it for now, folks! I'll be back soon enough with a new Halloween-time article for you all. But for the time being, here is the full list of Godzilla Chronicles articles, if you've missed any:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

9. Son of Godzilla

10. Destroy All Monsters

11. All Monsters Attack 







Friday, July 31, 2020

Classic Songs: I Love The Night

It's time to take another look at one of my favorite songs of all time. Unlike the last two I've done pieces on, which are more personal to me, and I experienced (in both cases) in my teens, this is a song I'm fairly certain I didn't hear until I was at least in early adulthood. So I don't have as much of an emotional connection to it. BUT, it is a song that grew on me over time, to the point that I don't mind saying, not only is it my favorite song by the band who created it, but it's easily in my Top 5 favorite songs of all time, ever.

The 1977 rock classic, Spectres.

Blue Oyster Cult as a band, is an odd duck, to begin with. They are one of the weirdest, and arguably the most eclectic rock bands of their era. For me personally, I encountered them at a younger age in life than I did Kansas and Metallica, the bands who originated the two previous songs in this series. That is, except for briefly seeing Metallica play "Enter Sandman" on some awards show in the early 90s, which for whatever reason at that age didn't yet grab me (though you'd think it would have). 

As I've covered when talking about my childhood experiences with Godzilla, during that glorious TNT's MonsterVision Godzilla marathon, they played a promo in between movies, a video package which played BOC's song "Godzilla" over movie clips. I had never heard that song before, and at about age 11 or 12, I thought it was the most bad ass thing I'd ever heard. So you could easily say that I was instantly a Blue Oyster Cult fan, due to that song, even though I wouldn't experience more of their catalogue until I was into my very late teens. It's entirely probable that I heard at least a clip of their most famous hit, "Don't Fear the Reaper" play on TV at some point. But "Godzilla" was the one that stuck with me.

BOC, in their 70s prime.

For a bit of history, the band that would come to be known as Blue Oyster Cult, started out as a college band called Soft White Underbelly, in the late 1960s. Band friend and rock critic, Sandy Pearlman, offered to be their manager, and also wound up being their creative partner. He was hugely influential in both their music and their success. After going through several name changes, and adding lead vocalist Eric Bloom, they would finally settle on Blue Oyster Cult, and saw their first official self-titled album release in 1972. 

From the start, BOC was a very unique act, both due to the quirky, more intellectual sensibilities of the band members, but also because of their collaborations with various outside personalities. Sandy Pearlman, being probably the biggest of these, contributed several of his own poems over the years, which were used as the basis for certain BOC songs. They would also collaborate lyrically with both rock critic Richard Meltzer, and early Punk Rock icon Patti Smith, among others. Another element of the band that was fairly unique, is that even on their first album, almost every band member sang lead vocals at some point. A tradition that persisted through their entire career, even though Eric Bloom and Donald "Buck Dharma" Roeser have always been the main singers.

BOC's first album, part of their "Black and White era" of the early 70s.

While their early albums, which all featured black and white cover art, featured a few minor hits, such as "Cities On Flame With Rock n Roll" and "Astronomy", and the band saw steady growth through 1975, it wasn't until their 1976 epic "Agents of Fortune" that they finally hit the "big time". Their hit single "Don't Fear The Reaper" reached into the Top 15 on radio airplay, and became an immortal opus for the band ever since. 

They followed this success up with 1977's "Spectres", which produced another massive radio hit, the aforementioned "Godzilla", which also became a permanent favorite for fans at concerts. Buck Dharma, who also happens to be one of my favorite guitarists of all time, not only wrote (and sang) "Don't Fear The Reaper", he also wrote both "Godzilla", and the song I'm actually here to talk about, the low-key ballad "I Love The Night". They would continue churning out hit albums into the early 80s, culminating with what is arguably their overall best record, 1981's "Fire of Unknown Origin". Their success as a top act would wane during the course of the 80s and beyond, but Blue Oyster Cult had already forever etched their name into the proverbial Rock of Ages, as far as rock music was concerned. They had already achieved musical immortality.

From left to right, the three guitarists of BOC, Allen Lanier, Eric Bloom, and Buck Dharma.

The reason that "I Love The Night" has grown over time into one of my favorite songs, is first and foremost because of its incredible tone, and mood. It has just such a chill vibe, with haunting, almost baroque guitar work. Dharma's vocals are equally both peaceful and haunting, as well. It's such a great song to relax to, the perfect thing to put on if you're stressed out, or angry, or otherwise in a foul mood. It has a delicious melancholy to it, even a slight sinister tint, but it also somehow manages to exude such positive, calming vibes.

Lyrically, the song comes off as a very poetic, if not a bit spooky, love song. But underneath, it has supernatural undertones, the "Lady in White" being either some kind of ghost, or perhaps vampire. Regardless, the man in the song becomes mesmerized by a woman who dominates his thoughts, and whom he can only see under the darkness of night. Done perhaps any other way, especially considering the possible vampiric connotations, this is not necessarily the kind of lyrical content that I would gravitate towards, nor even enjoy. But the way Dharma's lyrics, singing, and guitar work intertwine, telling this haunting tale, it just captivates me. It's actually hard for me to believe that this song originally FAILED to be a major radio hit for the band. But for me, while Blue Oyster Cult has produced quite a few truly great songs over their career, this song (perhaps tied with its spiritual twin "Don't Fear The Reaper") is their greatest work.

Here are the lyrics, and the song, so that you may experience, and hopefully be captivated by it yourself:

That night her kiss told me it was over,
I walked out late into the dark.
The misty gloom seems to soak up my sorrow,
The further I went on, I felt a spreading calm.

Then suddenly, my eyes were bathed in light,

And the lovely lady in white was by my side.
She said "Like me I see you're walking alone.
Won't you please stay?"
I couldn't look away.
She said I love the night,
The day is ok and the sun can be fun,
But I live to see those rays slip away.
I love the night,
There's so much I can show and give to you,
If you will welcome me tonight.
If only you had been there my dear,
We could have shared this together.
No mortal was meant to see such wonder,
One look in the mirror told me so.
Come darkness I'll see her again,
Yes I'm gonna go, 'cause now I know...

Sunday, May 31, 2020

Godzilla Chronicles: All Monsters Attack

Well it's that time again, for another entry of the Godzilla Chronicles! Last time, I looked at what is to many the crescendo of the original Showa series, Destroy All Monsters. This time, I'm gonna slow things down a bit, and talk about what to many fans, is the lowlight, the least, of those films.

One of the VHS covers.

As I've mentioned in the past, in the early to mid 90s, as a kid gradually heading into my pre-teen years, I was obsessed with monsters and monster movies. And nothing truly helped fuel that for me MORE, than TNT's MonsterVision. In that pre-Joe-Bob Briggs era (bless him), that less people seem to remember or be familiar with, I was hit with wave after wave of awesome (and sometimes kinda terrible) old movies, most of which I had never seen before. MonsterVision helped me to experience many Ray Harryhausen films I'd never yet seen. It also helped me to see many other films considered classics, such as This Island Earth, and The Thing From Another World, and The Time Machine.

But MonsterVision, through a couple of (to child me) incredibly awesome weekend marathons, ALSO allowed me to experience FAR more Godzilla and related Toho films than I otherwise would have been able to. After we finally got a VCR in 1990 or so, I was able to talk my grandmother into buying the occasional Godzilla VHS tape from Walmart. This is how I came to own some of my first Godzilla films, perhaps the first I'd ever seen, such as favorites Godzilla vs. Monster Zero and Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster, as well as a stand-alone film like Rodan. Thanks to these "Godzillathons", I was able to see movies like Mothra vs. Godzilla, War of the Gargantuas, Godzilla vs. Gigan, and Terror of Mechagodzilla. My grandmother even let me use blank VHS tapes to record these movies off of TV, to technically add to my collection.

But there was ONE movie that was part of that set, that was not like quite like the others...

Just a lonely boy...

Called "Godzilla's Revenge", it's American title, this 1969 curiosity was like nothing else I'd seen. But at the time at least, not necessarily in a good way. Directed by Ishiro Honda, the main guy behind a majority of the best known Showa era Toho monster/sci-fi films, this film known as All Monsters Attack, was the result of, I believe, a combination of Toho being cheap, and Honda himself perhaps getting tired of doing monster movies, which by that point in his career, was all about all he made anymore. Instead of your typical Godzilla flick, focusing on some alien mystery, or new monster threat roaming the countryside, this was a much more small scale, intimate story.

It centers around a little Japanese boy named Ichiro Miki, who is a so-called "Latch-key" kid, meaning both of his parents work and are gone from home a lot, so he will often find himself at home, alone, after school. Ichiro is a lonely boy who seems, at least at the outset of the story, to have almost no friends, except for a girl named Sachiko, and his neighbor Shinpei Inami. Shinpei is an older man, and a toymaker, who also happens to help look after Ichiro sometimes, cooking him dinner, and things like that. Ichiro's main source of strife in his life, besides his loneliness, are a group of school bullies, led by big-kid Sanko Gabara, who seem to torment him on a regular basis on his walks home from school.

Friends come in all shapes and sizes.

Now, just on the surface, it would seem that there was certainly a lot that kid-me could relate to in this film. Ichiro is a lonely, only child, with barely any friends, who uses his vivid imagination as an escape, and is obsessed with monsters. That was basically me growing up, to a T, minus the fact that I didn't even have parents as he did, but rather, a (sometimes tyrannical and somewhat abusive) grandmother. But the thing is, at that age, around 12 or so years old, I wasn't watching MonsterVision, let alone GODZILLA movies, for a story about a little boy and his lonely life. While I'm sure I recognized the parallels with my own life, I wasn't able to really appreciate that then, because what I was there for, as ANY "Monster Kid" would be, was, you guessed it, the MONSTERS!

And the thing is, All Monsters Attack HAS those. Just not quite the way it should have. To help him escape his boredom and loneliness, as well as a way to cope with the daily stress of being bullied (something else I would come to identify all too well with, years later in my teens), Ichiro used his powerful imagination to dream up fantastical things. In particular, using parts given to him by Shinpei, he would utilize a little TV/radio type set, to daydream that he was travelling to Monster Island, where Godzilla and the other monsters are now kept. He would go there to visit his friend, Minilla, the eponymous Son of Godzilla, who in this tale could shrink down to his human child size. 

Meet Gabara, the King of Jerks.

In Ichiro's daydreams, Minilla (alternatively called Minya), is having his OWN troubles with a big bad bully, who just so happens to ALSO be named Gabara. This Gabara, however, is a giant, no-good monster, with green scales and a magic horn, who seems to be able to electrocute with a touch. He tries to goad Minilla into fights, picking on the weaker monster of course, seemingly just for fun. Much like Ichiro himself, Minilla simply doesn't know how to deal with this, and doesn't truly WANT to fight.


Of course, he does try to fight him, because his pops, Godzilla, would want him to. Unfortunately, he's just too small, and hasn't yet mastered his dad's thermo-nuclear radioactive breath attack. Gabara winds up beating him, and he winds up having to have his dad come to his rescue. Much like in his own debut film Son of Godzilla.

Father and Son.

And really, especially for kid me, there-in lies the problem: the monster fights. I think I would have enjoyed this movie a lot more, and really been able to better appreciate it at that age, if not for one thing: most of the monster fights are canned! Meaning, that in a very cheap move on Toho's part, most of the monster scenes are stock footage, taken from Godzilla vs. The Sea Monster and Son of Godzilla. No joke. The scenes with Gabara are brand new, and he is an interesting enough monster, even though he only exists in Ichiro's dreams. But as a kid, starving to see NEW Godzilla films with NEW Godzilla fights, the fact that it just re-uses a lot of scenes of Godzilla battles from OLDER movies, was really lame. To be perfectly honest, I felt very let down and cheated by that.

The new Blu Ray art.

In the course of the story, Ichiro finds himself being taken hostage by a couple of numbskull bank robbers, who hold up in some abandoned factory, trying to avoid the police. Naturally, Ichiro uses his imagination as both an escape and a means to cope with this situation. And through watching Minilla grow up and learn how to stand up for himself against the monster Gabara, he himself learns to find the courage to escape from the robbers. He later even finally stands up to HIS real-life Gabara, as well.

At its core, All Monsters Attack is far from a bad film. In fact, I think at its heart, its a very GOOD story, with a good message, that as an adult I'm able to fully take in and appreciate. In some ways, the human story happening in the film is probably one of the best that Honda ever directed. But as a MONSTER movie, as a GODZILLA movie, specifically because of the lazy use (or even OVER-use) of stock footage fights, it winds up being rather lacking. It could have, and should have, been a stronger film that it is, and its unfortunate that it was undermined by Toho's cheapness. Because really, it ISN'T a bad movie, and doesn't deserve most of the hate it gets.

As I always say with these articles, if you are someone who hasn't seen many, or ANY, of the old Godzilla movies, I would not recommend this one as something to start with, at all. You aren't going to miss it if you never see it. BUT, if you ever do wind up watching this obscure and curious little gem, I think there are things here worth seeing. I definitely think for anyone who has kids, this would be a good movie to watch with them, ESPECIALLY if they aren't able to recognize the old stock footage fights!


For now, for any who may have missed them, here are the other Godzilla Chronicles articles, in order:

1. The Beginning

2. Gojira (aka Godzilla: King of the Monsters)

3. Godzilla Raids Again

4. King Kong vs. Godzilla

5. Mothra vs. Godzilla

6. Ghidorah, The Three-Headed Monster

7. Invasion of the Astro Monster (aka Godzilla vs. Monster Zero)

8. Godzilla vs. the Sea Monster

9. Son of Godzilla

10. Destroy All Monsters

Thursday, April 30, 2020

My Top Favorite NES Games: Revisited

For those of you who have been following along with this blog, or my Youtube videos, for years now, it will come as no surprise then that my favorite video game console of all time, is the original Nintendo Entertainment System, or NES. In this man's humble opinion, while later systems certainly had more horsepower, more sophisticated graphics and sound, more buttons, etc., none have ever, or will ever, top the NES. Firstly, this console richly deserve its celebrated status as the thing that "resurrected" a dead home gaming market in North America (specially the U.S.). While arcades and home computer gaming were growing and going strong in the mid-80s, it is a fact that the flooded home console gaming market caved in upon itself in 1983, with too many systems (Atari 2600, Atari 5200, Odyssey 2, Vectrex, Intellivision, Colecovision, etc.), and in Atari's case, too many unregulated games flooding the market. When Nintendo took a chance and test-released the NES in New York in late 1985, it began what is rightly seen as the renaissance of home gaming in America. For that alone, the console is legendary.

But more importantly, I think, and what caused it to BE that success, and help revive home gaming, is the fact that over time it had an outstanding library of, for their time, truly remarkable and even incredible games. Surely, as every popular system since the 2600 has, the NES also got its share of "crap" games, in spite of Nintendo's efforts to ensure better quality. But the sheer volume of anywhere from really solid, to truly great games that came out for this thing, is if you ask me, pretty staggering. We're not just talking legendary titles like Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda, innovative, ahead-of-their time masterpieces that helped define entire genres for decades to come. We're also talking about the fact that this system introduced us to so many classic games, or franchises, including but not limited to: Mario Bros., Zelda, Metroid, Ninja Gaiden, Castlevania, Adventure Island, Gradius, Metal Gear, TMNT, Double Dragon, Final Fantasy, Dragon Warrior (Quest), Tetris, Dr. Mario, Punch Out, Mega Man, and the list goes on and on.

For many, especially of my age/generation, this was the system that took home video gaming from being neat on Atari, to being amazing, and if you were like me, a childhood obsession. In the past, I did a two part article where I discussed what, at the time, I thought was a pretty solid order of my favorite games for the console. You can find those here and here. But looking back at that list, it doesn't truly reflect what I feel, now, is the proper order. So I'm here to revisit the topic, and this time, instead of listing games that, in many cases, I felt SHOULD be on the list, I am now going to endeavor to use my heart, not just my head, and suss out a proper list that actually represents the games I love most of all. So without further buildup, let's get to it!


 1 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 3, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1988 (’90 in NA)

Simply put, while SMB1 was the game that got me to become obsessed with gaming, SMB3 was the game that stole my heart, and made me fall in love with gaming. As far as I’m concerned, it is the greatest game, the MOST flawless video game ever crafted, of all time. This was Nintendo in their prime, at their absolute best, getting the most they could out of that NES hardware in the late 80s, and stuffing as much content as they could into that little gray plastic cartridge.

They perfected the platforming/side-scrolling controls and mechanics that they themselves had pioneered. They had honed the “Mario formula”, which they had been tweaking and messing with, down to its finest and most distilled elements. They took the ridiculously catchy nature of SMB1’s music, and composed a bouncy soundtrack that simply refuses to get the hell out of your head. They provided a wide array of worlds, with a plethora of challenges and unique experiences contained in each. They presented gamers with an enormous menagerie of different monsters to overcome, and a bad ass arsenal of new power-ups with which to do so. This game established so many precedents, such as the Mario Suits, the Koopa Kids, a fuller picture of what the Mushroom Kingdom/World actually looked like, etc.

Simply put, this game has a bit of everything, for everybody. And while it’s easy for anyone, of any gaming experience level, to just pick up and play, and enjoy, it also happens to be arguably the hardest Mario game ever made, as it has some downright sadistic levels contained within it. There was a time when I played this game SO often, that in my childhood years (ages 9-13), I got so good at it that I could go through the entire game, without warping or skipping levels, while losing very few lives at all. I’m not sure I’ve ever done a DEATHLESS run, but I was goddamn good at it. In my old age now? Not so much.

But as mad as this brilliant classic now makes me sometimes, I still love it to death, and I easily and gladly maintain that it is my very Favorite Game of All Time.

2 – Game: Mega Man 2, Publisher: Capcom, Originally Released: 1988 (’89 in NA)

Very similar to how SMB3 shows Nintendo at it’s finest, firing on all cylinders, you could easily make the same case for Mega Man 2. While later Mega Man games would, little by little, add neat little elements that more often than not really did add to the overall experience, such as the slide, the charged Mega-Buster shot, and Rush the robo-dog, MM2 really kinda was the old school Mega Man team at their very best. And while it seems popular to say that “MM2 is the best Mega Man ever”, it really kind of is, with there being some very specific reasons for saying so.

This game was, simply put, a pure passion project. This was Keiji Inafune and his team at their height of caring and dedication, as the original Mega Man was actually not a big hit, and Capcom did not desire a sequel. But Inafune-san more or less begged them to allow his team to make another game, and they gave him permission to do so, so long as they did so in their own free-time, while they were also working full-time on whatever game Capcom actually wanted them to make. And the very fact that this game was a passion project, bleeds through in every single pixel and bloop you experience.

Like SMB3, it takes the basic mechanics and formula that MM1 established, but refines and pretty much perfects them all. The controls are tighter, the bosses are cooler (all of them), the level designs are more intricate and creative, many of the boss powers tend to be far more useful. And the MUSIC! My god, the music. This game has the reputation, by many, of having the single greatest soundtrack of any game ever made, and while I’m not certain I would say THE SINGLE best of any game ever, personally, I absolutely will say it’s right up at the top. It isn’t just incredibly catchy, it’s actually damn good tunes! MM2 may not fully perfect and refine the Mega Man formula the way SMB3 did for Mario, as sliding, and Charge Shots are pretty damn cool/useful. But it IS, I would argue, the most “perfect”, top to bottom, for what it is, of any Mega Man game, or for that matter most games ever made.

I think I would, in fact, actually go so far as to say that I think MM2 is the second greatest game ever made.

 3 – Game: Kirby’s Adventure, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1993

There may well be a recurring theme here, at least for these Top 3 games. The original game, Kirby’s Dreamland, released for the Game Boy in 1992, and was one of the earlier big hits for Nintendo’s original portable console. It was a fun, but short and very simplistic game, basically perfect for the “on the go fun” vibe that GB was originally all about. But it was with the NES sequel, Kirby’s Adventure, in its full glorious 8-bit color, that Iwata, Sakurai and Co. went absolutely nuts, making what would turn to be a rather huge game. In just about a year’s time, it would seem, they managed to churn out not just a “by the numbers” sequel, but to put it in modern gamer vernacular, a “Megaton”.

This was the same basic deal, in many ways, as MM2 and SMB3 before it, in that they took a formula, added to it, refined it, and perfected it. When I rented this game in the mid-90s, even though what I had seen of the SNES (didn’t own one yet) and Genesis and of course Arcades were “way ahead” of it, I was still blown away by this game. It floored me just how much content they stuffed in this game, from the fact that it has 20 (yes 20) different powers, a huge slate of enemies and bosses, a wide variety of very different and very creative levels, catchy tunes, hidden secrets, and awesome mini-games. The final (full) world, “Rainbow Resort” by itself, with its crazy level designs, even providing a “grayscale” Game Boy style level, really impressed me. What they achieved on aged NES hardware in 1993, was honestly every bit as impressive and innovative as anything that had been achieved during that same era on a variety of considerably more powerful consoles. It isn’t just a major achievement, I don’t mind calling it a masterpiece.

This instantly became one of my very favorite games of all time, permanently winning a spot in my heart, both for the Kirby character, but also for this game specifically. They even made an awesome remake of this, 16-bit style, on the Game Boy Advance, years later, called “Nightmare in Dreamland”. You even get to play as Meta Knight if you can 100% the game! However, no matter how many new Kirby games come out in the series, much like MM2 and SMB3, to me THIS game will always be the quintessential Kirby experience. It’s the best Kirby, in my opinion, ever created.

4 – Game: Star Tropics, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1990

I originally rented this game, and liked it a lot, even though it’s challenging, as a kid. I eventually wound up owning a copy, and beat the entire game. I don’t mind telling you that when I beat this game, it was a major childhood triumph, and to me at the time, the (unusually elaborate for the console) ending was totally worth it. Star Tropics is an oddity, in that it was developed in-house by Nintendo, but specifically for the “western” market, meaning that it was never originally released in Japan. Which of course makes zero sense, because I think Japanese gamers would have loved this gem just as much as Americans and Europeans did.

Now, this game may be an acquired taste for some. It features, to put it nicely, rather rigid gameplay, with a lot of well-timed jumping being the key to greatest success. It’s not quite as “pick up and play” as Mario or Zelda, or even Kirby. But it’s also not all that hard to get into, or get used to, and once you get the “cadence” of the jumping down, you really can conquer this game. The main challenge actually lies in a few moments of rather clever (and even devious) puzzle solving you are tasked with, including an infamous submarine code that could (originally) only be discovered by dampening a piece of paper that came with the game. But all in all, with it’s tongue-in-cheek, self-aware cheesy dialogue, catchy soundtrack, cool story, and sense of wonder and exploration, it’s a game that I would say any gamer should at least try.

It was a unique and fresh experience for it’s time, that still holds up to this day.

5 – Game: Monster in My Pocket, Publisher: Konami, Originally Released: 1992

As detailed here, probably my single favorite toys from my childhood, were a line of monster figures called “Monster in My Pocket”, released in the early 90s. Thankfully, someone decided to cash in on the (sadly) temporary craze, and made a game of it, because it turned out to be one of the best games I’ve ever played. Developed by Konami, back when they actually made good games (or actually made games at all, really), I would say this was one of the best games they ever put out. You play as Vampire and Frankenstein’s Monster, and go against a legion of other monsters from the set, all possessing the same point values the figures themselves did (nice touch). You journey through five or six stages of miniature mayhem, before finally taking on the master of disaster himself, the Warlock. It’s a great game, lots of fun, with co-op 2-player, and a bad ass soundtrack.

6 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 1, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1985

I wondered to myself which of the original two Mario games I thought should come before the other in this list, but the original won out. The primary reason being, as mentioned before, it was this game, specifically, that made me go from having a passing childhood interest in video games, thinking they were neat, and fun to play if I could get my hands on them, to growing into an outright childhood fixation. This game captured my attention upon first seeing it at my friend Harold's house, and captured my imagination and my heart, as soon as I was finally able to own an NES myself, a late-comer to the scene, in 1990.

This game drove me nuts at age 8/9, to the point at least once of crying when I got to one of the last levels and couldn’t beat it. But it also became ingrained in my psyche, as I would very often pass the time or distract myself from homework, etc., by imagining Mario running and jumping around my house, or wherever I happened to be at the time. The main Mario tune, in fact, to this day is still always somewhere playing in the back of my mind. And I was very proud that I was the first kid I knew to figure out that goddamn last castle, and beat the game. I even showed Harold and his brother how to beat it. I felt like I was the shit, for that.

But this is also THE game that more or less revived console gaming in the United States, and it also single-handedly made the NES the king of consoles in the mid-to-late 80s. It’s one of the best games ever made, and the only reason SMB3 tops it, is because it took everything about this game, and perfected it.

7 – Game: Arkista’s Ring, Publisher: American Sammy, Originally Released: 1990

The first games that I owned, were the SMB1/Duck Hunt cart that came with so many NES units. The other two earliest games I remember owning, were another Light Gun shooter called “To The Earth”, a space-based shooter that was hard as hell, but I did somehow beat, and this obscure gem. At first glance, I’m sure to some it seems like a Zelda clone. In fact, my grandmother stopped me from actually renting Zelda 1 myself (a heinous crime, to be certain), because she claimed it “looked too much like that other game you own, try something different”. However, it is actually not much like Zelda at all.

It’s an odd little game, that comes straight from the arcade era of gaming. It literally seems like it would be a port of a 1980s arcade game, as it has the style, the points, the simple, limited stages, etc. But nope, it’s an NES original, and it’s actually a lot of fun. You play Christine, a female warrior elf, trying to save the kingdom, etc. etc., you use a bow and arrow, though you can upgrade to fireballs and a couple other odd powers. The game features about 31 stages, and true to older type games, you have to beat it not twice, but THREE times over, to get the “Ending”. Otherwise, it’s a great, underrated gem that I think more people should try.

8 – Game: Adventure Island 2, Publisher: Hudson, Originally Released: 1991

The Adventure Island games are a classic part of gaming history. And the way they’re set up, you could argue they were some of the first to lend themselves to “speed running”, as that is literally what you have to do: run for your life and avoid obstacles before your meter runs out. Originally “Wonder Boy” in the arcades, published by Sega, Hudson Soft partially licensed that game, and continued and refined the formula as “Adventure Island” on the NES. Meanwhile Wonder Boy actually went on to become something totally different on the Sega Master System. I actually only rented the first of this series myself as a kid, though I did play either 2 or 3 at a friend’s house. I chose AI2 because it’s my favorite, and my pick for best of the NES set, though they’re all highly fun (and challenging) games.

9 – Game: Bugs Bunny’s Birthday Blowout, Publisher: Kemco, Originally Released: 1990

I will say that this is, to date, still the best Looney Tunes game I’ve ever played. I rented Kemco’s older “Crazy Castle” game as well, and while it has its own old school charm, it doesn’t hold a candle to this one. This was a title that I first rented, and wound up later owning, thanks to that awesome Christmas box that included Dr. Mario and SMB3. The game stars Bugs, on his way to a birthday party (the game is celebrating his 50th anniversary), and his “friends”, the other Looney Tunes, seem to suddenly be out to get him, trying to stop his progress. You eventually face off against most of the LT greats, like Daffy, Elmer, Tweety, Sylvester, Pepe Le Pew, Foghorn Leghorn and Yosemite Sam. And you do get to bash everything with a huge hammer, so there’s that. Far from a masterpiece, but an underrated gem that I greatly enjoy.

 10 – Game: Yoshi, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1990 (’91 in NA)

To be perfectly honest, there are probably many games that I could make an argument for deserving a Top 10 spot. Maybe even some games that, at some time or another, I have played the living shit out of and have loved more than this game. BUT, it just so happens that, behind only “Puzzle Bobble” (aka “Bust a Move” in NA), this game is probably my second favorite puzzle game of all time. Most people seem to know of its more bizarre cousin, “Yoshi’s Cookie”, which released on NES and SNES a year later, but somehow this little treasure is more obscure to the greater gaming consciousness.

And that’s a damn shame too, because it is, I don’t mind saying, a far better game than Cookie. Part of it’s immediate allure to me as a kid, of course, was that the puzzle “pieces” that you have to match up in this particular Tetris-inspired puzzler, happened to be actual, honest-to-Boswer enemies from Mario games. More specifically, their sprites were obviously inspired by the enemy designs of Super Mario Bros. 3, which just so happened to be my favorite game. The game featured Yoshi, an invention of “Super Mario Bros. 4” (World) on SNES, but it otherwise screamed SMB3, which suited me just fine.

But beyond aesthetics, it’s a genuinely fun, addicting, and clever puzzle game, wherein you have to stack up enemy monsters to clear the game board. That in and of itself isn’t terribly unique in a post-Tetris world, but the clever part of the gimmick, was that you could also sandwich monsters in between halves of a Yoshi egg, and depending on how many monsters you stacked before putting the top on, you would get a bigger Yoshi, and thus more points. It's just a colorful, cheerful, simplistic and fun little game, that I think is criminally underrated in the world of puzzle gaming.

11 – Game: Final Fantasy, Publisher: Squaresoft, Originally Released: 1987 (’90 in NA)

This game gets up pretty high on the list for two reasons. The first being, it was basically the first console rpg I ever played. I had played a couple of old PC rpgs, such as Sorcerian (great game) and Times of Lore, but this was the first so-called “jRPG” styled game I experienced. The second reason being, while it is VERY “old school”, very simple and even obtuse in certain ways, it is still a really, really good game. Having to buy your magic sucks, and having to grind for days for levels and gold can get old, but the original Final Fantasy has a lot to offer, and hard-as-nails or not, it still captured my imagination, and I eventually beat it. I was rather proud of myself.

12 – Game: Super Mario Bros. 2, Publisher: Nintendo, Originally Released: 1987 (’88 in NA)

I’m very glad, personally, that this is the “Mario 2” that we got. Because, while not a bad game, in my opinion at least, what would later come to be known to us as “The Lost Levels”, the original Japanese Mario 2 is an uninspired, professional hack of Mario 1. Some people love it, and I can understand that, but I can also fully see and appreciate why Nintendo decided against bringing it stateside. Instead, they gave us THIS masterpiece, which was not originally a Mario game at all, but they covered it with Mario paint (pun-intended), and it is now forever part of Mario lore. I specifically remember originally renting this game and not liking it all that much, because “hey, THIS isn’t like Mario 1 and 3 at all!”

But I later came to own it, played it more, and came to appreciate it for the brilliant little platformer that it is. In fact, I really wish they would make another 2D Mario game in this style. Or hell, even a game starring Toad or SHY GUY (one of my fav. Mario enemies), so long as it has this same gameplay and takes place in Subcon, the land of dreams.

13 – Game: Kid Klown, Publisher: Kemco, Originally Released: 1992 (’93 in NA)

A very similar case to “our” Super Mario Bros. 2, this game was originally released in Japan as “Mickey Mouse III: Balloon Dreams”, and part of me wishes we had gotten this game, if only so that the NES would have had a GOOD Mickey game. But, I am alternatively glad we got a repurposed game, because on the one hand he’s a cool original character, and on the other, we got the amazing name for the new bad guy: The Night Mayor! That name alone sells the game all by itself, as far as I’m concerned.

But in all seriousness, this game is a LOT of fun, plays very well, and features a defining game mechanic that I have perhaps never seen a developer make better or more diverse use of, in any other game. Your main (only) weapon are red balloons, but with these balloons, you can throw them (including varying distances), you can hold them as a shield, you can drop them on the ground to jump on (giving you a boost), throw them straight down to jump on mid-air, and even hold them in the air to float-jump. If for no other reason than that multi-purpose balloon action, I would say retro game lovers owe it to themselves to try this game out.

14 – Game: Mighty Final Fight, Publisher: Capcom, Originally Released: 1993

A late NES era rental that I fell in love with, Mighty Final Fight is a somewhat miniaturized port of the arcade classic. But in all honesty, while it is missing two-player, one of the areas from the arcade, it is still in many ways, at least in this man’s opinion, the best port of FF. The action is crisp and responsive, the soundtrack is rockin, and the game even features a “Double Dragon”-esque leveling system that is unique to this version. Plus, unlike the SNES port, you get to choose between all three characters, Cody, Guy, and Haggar. This game, while maddeningly tough at times, gets my vote for best beat ’em up on the NES.

15 – Game: Xexyz, Publisher: Hudson, Originally Released: 1988 (’90 in NA)

Probably one of the most obscure games, and certainly the most obscure Hudson game on my list, this was a game that I’m pretty sure I just somehow randomly came to own. There were multiple stores that went out of business in the early 90s in the town I grew up in, and I reaped the benefit of them having clearance sales. This may have been one of those. But regardless, it is a very unique sort of game, not fully comparable to anything else. It alternates between side-scrolling action/platformer levels, in which you must earn money to upgrade your weapons and abilities, and horizontal space shooter levels. Both of which task you with some pretty epic boss fights. And it’s all in the name of saving your love, and the world. Naturally. It’s a very little known, but really great game.

 16 – Game: Bonk’s Adventure, Publisher: Hudson, Originally Released: 1993

 Originally released in 1989 on a console that was, in many ways, Hudson Soft’s own console (they made many of the big hits for it), the Turbografx-16 (known in Japan as the “PC Engine”), Bonk’s Adventure was a fun and unique platformer. Bonk himself became something of a mascot for the TG16 in NA, as he would go on to have a trilogy of games for the console. But in 1993, Hudson, who had maintained friendly relations with Nintendo for most of their history, and had continued making games for their consoles as well, decided to release a slightly downsized (but still awesome) port of the game for NES. This version is missing a bit of content, but overall, it’s a very faithful port, and wall-biting, head-bonking action is every bit as fun.

 17 – Game: Monster Party, Publisher: Bandai, Originally Released: 1989

That one picture pretty much encapsulates everything this game is. An odd, obscure, out-of-left-field experience at every turn, and all the better for it. In this game, you play a young baseball playing boy named Mark, who is approached by a gargoyle looking alien (because why not), to come help him save his world. The alien melt-melds with the poor kid, and whisks him away. This game was a rental for me, never owning it till adulthood, but I fell in love with it based on the first level alone. The game starts very bright, cute, bouncy and colorful, with smiles everywhere and happy music. And then midway through, BOOM, the entire level transforms into blood, and darkness, and monsters, and creepy music.

It shocked me, but it also got me hooked. The game features a ton of little boss fights, almost all of them weird as hell, from killer Tempura, to dancing zombies that you don’t actually have to fight (spoilers), to an already-dead corpse that you literally don’t have to fight. The game’s difficulty isn’t too tough for much of it, as you shift between baseball kid and gargoyle with special pill power-ups. But lemme warn ya, late in the game, the last level especially, it becomes a very special brand of f***ed.

 18 – Game: Felix the Cat, Publisher: Hudson , Originally Released: 1992

Another rental of mine, this is another Hudson classic. And let me just take this opportunity to point out, that Hudson Soft really was one of the best developers of all time. Not just in anyone’s personal opinion, but objectively, beyond one of the most popular franchises of all time in “Bomberman”, they made such a high volume of quality games over the years (including the original “Mario Party” games). That said, this game is no different, cashing in on a slight Felix revival that was happening in the early 90s, and featuring his awesome magic bag from the old 50s cartoon, this is a very solid platformer, in which you can upgrade his bag into all sorts of powers, including a tank, plane, etc.

 19 – Game: TMNT 2, Publisher: Konami, Originally Released: 1990

One of the best arcade ports ever made, right up there with the SNES port of its sequel, “Turtles in Time”. Right in line with a lot of other weirdness of my childhood, directly to do with my grandmother and her inconsistent views, I was not allowed to watch the classic TMNT cartoon as a kid, which is a damn shame, because I likely would have loved it. But I DID get to experience the arcade game, both at a local Pizza Hut, and a local skating rink. And from what little I got to play it, I thought it was awesome. And this NES port, while certainly downsized, is very true to the arcade, even adding an extra level and boss or two. I will say that as part of being downsized from the arcade original, the animations and thus beat em up action doesn't feel AS good or satisfying, but it still holds up well on the 8-bit hardware. The final boss, Shredder, is an absolute son-of-a-bitch, but this game rocks. And FYI, I’m a Donnie guy.

20 – Game: Castlevania, Publisher: Konami, Originally Released: 1986 (87 in NA)

The one game on this list that you might be surprised to know DIDN'T officially make the original list, but absolutely should have. It was a heated inner-debate about which game should take up the 20 spot here, but ultimately, true to my word about heart over head, I kept feeling a slight tug at the old heartstrings, every time I considered this classic. I have no childhood memories or experience with the Castlevania series, outside of my beloved cartoon series Captain N: The Game Master. I don't know why, in fact I'm quite sure I had access to them, but for some reason I never rented any of the three original NES games as a kid. I should have, considering how much I loved monsters, and in spite of its difficulty, I feel I really would have enjoyed this game a lot at that age.

What swayed me to choose this over other games that I had a more personal connection with growing up, was that it genuinely is a total package ordeal. The only major flaw this game, or any of the classic entries in the series have, is those god awful, stiff as hell jumping mechanics. Once you jump in a given direction in this game, be it to either side, or even straight up, you basically have to commit, because you cannot adjust yourself in mid-air, ala Mario. I discuss this more in-depth here. To be blunt, that shitty jumping in Castlevania is the main reason its so hard. But outside of that, it has everything else going right for it: great, moody graphics (especially for 1986), varied level designs, cool sub-weapons, one of the best soundtracks to ever grace a video game, and most importantly to the "Monster Kid" who still lives inside me, one of THE coolest things about this series has always been the fact that it makes liberal use of a plethora of monsters, many taken right out of folklore, mythology, even old literature and movies.

It's too simple an answer to say "It Has Monsters" as the reason I included this in my Top 20 list, but at the same time, it's also 100% fair to admit that that was the deciding factor.


For any who have read the original two-part list, you may note that not only is the order largely different here, but there are also many games I put on that list, that are not present on this one. In the interest of completeness and fairness, I will now include a short appendix list, basically filling out more games, in no specific order, that I also like or even love for the NES. In the cases of those games I included on the original list, I will add an asterisk next to them, so that if you feel like, you can read what I had to say about them there. Some of the other NES games I like include:

Double Dragon
Double Dragon 2

The Legend of Zelda*
Zelda 2*
Kid Niki
Star Tropics 2*
Joe & Mac
Duck Tales*
Godzilla 2
Quattro Arcade*

M.C. Kids 
Rescue Rangers
Adventure Island 

Adventure Island 3
Adventure Island 4
Totally Rad
Mega Man 6
Flying Warriors*
Gargoyle's Quest 2
Bugs Bunny's Crazy Castle
Castlevania 2
Castlevania 3
Tiny Toon Adventures


Thanks for reading, as always, and stay tuned next month for the next installment of Godzilla Chronicles!