Tuesday, April 30, 2019

Forgotten Gems: Flying Warriors

As a poor kid in the early 90s, having not even gotten my NES until fall 1990, while I did get games from time to time from somewhere like, say, Walmart (for example the incredible Monster in My Pocket game), a lot of games I managed to get, I got because of major sales. Specifically, and sadly, "Going Out of Business" type sales. In the town I lived in, there was an old Woolworth's store, which was one of the older department store chains in the US. At some point in the early 90s, after I had gotten my NES, the one in our town finally went out of business, and thanks to their own "Going Out of Business" sale, I was able to get several NES games that I otherwise likely wouldn't have gotten. Later on, I'm going to say a year or two later, the local K-Mart store also went out of business, and again I was able to get several games (and from that sale also a pile of old Nintendo Power magazines).

One of my sales "gems".

Among the games gleaned from these two sales, at least so far as I can remember, I was able to pick up such NES gems (and not so gems) as: Tiny Toon Adventures, Final Fantasy, Wall Street Kid, Solar Jetman, Orb 3D, Flying Dragon and Flying Warriors. As I recall, I do believe I got Flying Warriors, which actually was a later follow-up, first, from the Woolworth's sale. Then later, I got its spiritual predecessor, Flying Dragon, from the K-Mart sale. Seen above is the US box art for this game (though I've seen alternate art), the cover I got as a kid.

Now, it needs to be said, that at this early 90s time, I was directly in the throes of my obsession with the then new (released in 1991) arcade mega-hit, which basically gave birth to the modern one-on-one fighting game genre (it certainly refined it), Street Fighter II. SFII was essentially my introduction into martial arts stuff, for the most part, as I had not been really allowed to watch things like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And it was specifically because of SFII, that I became not only obsessed with that game itself (though I rarely ever got to play it, which only fueled my obsession, making it like my Holy Grail), but with fighting games and the idea of martial arts in general. So when I was able to get games for my little NES that actually featured martial arts and tournament type fighting (a miracle in itself that my grandmother actually bought me these games in the first place), regardless of quality, I was enthralled!

What you see is what I got.

So, if my memory is correct, it is fairly easy to see how I could have been more than a bit disappointed when I got Flying Dragon from K-Mart, after having already owned and played the vastly superior "sequel" Flying Warriors. Released in the US in 1989, Flying Dragon was technically the second in the Hiyru no Ken (basically "Fist of the Flying Dragon") series. The first was known as Shanghai Kid, an arcade game which originated the fighting system the later games would use, and as such an early (and clunky) example of the one-on-one fighting genre that Street Fighter would later perfect. As you can see above, compared to its 1985 arcade cousin, Flying Dragon is actually pretty ambitious, not only adapting the in-ring tournament fighter aspect of Shanghai Kid, but fleshing the experience out by adding a side-scrolling element as well.

Unfortunately, while it's not a BAD game by any means, Flying Dragon is still fairly limited, and very rough around the edges. While a neat inclusion, and certainly lengthening the playability of the game, the side scrolling stages actually consist of looping levels. Meaning that you go through an area, fighting the same enemies and mini-bosses over and over, until you get all of the items that allow you to unlock a gate, beating the stage. Once you beat one of these stages, you got to a tournament fight, and have to battle one of your opponents in the "World Tournament of Contact Sports". The character, Ryuhi, has entered this tournament to avenge his master Juan's murder by the hands of mysterious Tusk Soldiers, and to retrieve the Secret Scrolls they stole.

The Tournament fights.

Keeping with what many games did around this mid-to-late 80s era, you cannot get the true ending of the game by beating it just once. Much like Ghosts n Goblins, or my own beloved Arkista's Ring, you have to beat it multiple times. In this specific case, the first time around, you have to collect all six of the Secret Scrolls the first time through to get the ending. The SECOND time through, you have to get not only the six scrolls, but also four mystic crystal balls. And if you DON'T get all of these items on the second (harder) playthrough, you won't get to see the game's true ending. I don't mind the idea of having a second, harder game to give players more to do after they've beaten a game. Hell, Mario and Zelda did that. But I DO mind the idea of not being able to actually see a game's ending until you beat it more than once. That's really kinda bullshit.

Overall, as I said, Flying Dragon is not a BAD game. It's just primitive and unrefined. Much as I did with most games I owned or rented as a kid, I still played it a lot, and tried my best to beat it (which I do believe I eventually did). But I simply did not find the story, nor far more repetitive gameplay (and having to beat it twice didn't help), as interesting, or fun, as I did the game that I'm REALLY here to talk about...

Cue Heroic Fanfare!

Released in 1991 in the US, the game known as Flying Warriors is an interesting case. It is actually made up of two Japan-only Famicom releases, the "sequels" to Flying Dragon, Hiryu no Ken 2 and 3. Apparently the game borrows elements from both games, while adding in some content of its own, which is a fairly unusual case when it comes to game localization. For whatever reasons, the developer, Culture Brain, decided when making this game for a western audience, to transform it into more of a "Saturday Morning Super Hero" type of deal. It still retained the mystic and martial arts elements (it would be pretty hard to remove those), but instead of transforming into armored mystic warriors, the heroes in this game transform into costumed super heroes. Culture Brain even went so far as to pay for multi-page, multi-part comic book style advertisements in North America, really selling the game as a comic book type of affair. Naturally, being big-time into the X-Men, Spider-Man and Batman cartoons of the early 90s, this made the game a huge draw for me.

Pretty bad ass.

I actually remember seeing these ads in classic gaming magazines like Game Pro, and these mini-comics really were pretty awesome. As for the game itself, aesthetically, even from the moment you power up the game, you are hit with a swell of super heroic-ness. The opening title theme is, in all seriousness, a pretty great piece of music, which you can listen to here. It definitely has a John Williams Superman type of vibe, and it does a good job helping to get you in the kind of mood for at least the tone the developers were trying for.

Takes a bit of learning.

As for the tone the game actually has? Well, it likely would have taken a lot of work to truly change what the game at its core was/is all about, which is the foundation of the Hiryu no Ken series: the martial arts theme and their fighting engine. The game starts you off as Rick Stalker (SUPER American name), who is in the mountains training with Kung Fu master who raised him, Gen Lao-Tsu. In fairly short order, after a quick tutorial session and a deadly walk through the hills, you learn that more is afoot than you would first suspect. Long ago some demon dude named Demonyx, of the Dark Dimension, tried to invade and rule the Light Dimension (where we live). He was repelled by a righteous warrior of Light called the Dragonlord. and sealed away with the pieces of the Mandara Talisman. But Demonyx warned that he would return when an Evil Red Star filled the sky. And now, naturally, it's up to Rick to FIND the pieces of this Talisman, and get ready to fight that SOB, to defend the Light Dimension again!

Just your average, quiet, demon-filled jog.

As you can see above, the game is more complex, graphically and otherwise, than its predecessor. The gameplay is still divided into side-scrolling levels, full of, quite frankly, a bit too much platforming for their own good (more on that later), and the one-on-one style fights. At first, these fights are with monks, to test your skill. But eventually, much like in Flying Dragon, you set off to take part in full blown martial art tournaments.

It was no Street Fighter, but it was what I had.

Now, hearkening back to my mention of Street Fighter II, as I stated before, I didn't get to play the game in arcades much, because my grandmother thought it was a waste of money. I DID get to play arcades sometimes, but far too rarely for my taste, and SFII itself super rarely. So in that sense it really was my "Holy Grail" at the time. I studied up on it, I read everything I could about the game and strategies for playing in magazines, I watched other kids play it every chance I got, etc. I would literally sit and think about what I would do in fights if I was able to play. And of course in practice, the rare times I DID get to play the game, I usually didn't last very long, only beating maybe one or two people before losing, because I obviously didn't have much practice.

So to me, only owning an NES, I took what little I could get when it came to a SFII-like experience, even if it was actually nothing close. With Flying Warriors, I had a game centered around martial arts, that even had a separate "Tournament Mode", which focused solely on this aspect. I played that mode by itself plenty, trying my best to pretend that it actually was some epic Street Fighter style affair. But really, poor-man's fighting game aside, at that age, Flying Warriors seemed like the perfect package for me. It had fighting, it had super heroes, mysticism, cool magic powers, etc. But there WAS one major flaw that held the whole thing back from being truly great...

Not all gameplay elements are created equal.

Not all too dissimilar from the Double Dragon or even Battletoads games, Flying Warriors is a game with its core in the fighting action. So much so, that this engine still shapes the gameplay on side-scrolling stages. Even though they try to throw in what can often be a copious amount of platforming, the way the mechanics in the game work, the jumping is stiff and often not precise enough for what they want you to do. It's not AS bad as the jumping in Double Dragon, but it's still a case of a non-platforming game trying to make you do platforming. I can recall one especially frustrating part a ways into the games, as you're making your way to the first tournament, and the game wants to you jump across this huge, gaping pit, Mario style. With moving platforms, and asshole enemies flying at you, and everything. Except UNLIKE Mario, your jumping controls and physics aren't built for that kind of action. So what happens? You can very easily wind up falling down the pit, a lot. And that kind of speed-bump in an otherwise decent game, can really sour the experience.

It's Morphin' Time!

Crappy jumping aside, the rest of the game's parts work well enough. As for the story, as you can see, Rick eventually picks up some allies as his journey moves along. Rick is joined by Mary Lynn, Hayato Go, Greg Cummings, and late in the game, Jimmy Culter Jr. (don't ask me where they picked those names), and together, as you might have guessed, they form the titular Flying Warriors. As the story progresses, you learn that forces from the Dark Dimension are at work, including a group of dark warriors who are your shadowy reflection, known as the Moonlight Warriors. If this all sounds like it should have been an anime or American cartoon series, well it's because it SHOULD have.

Ultimately, after fighting the Moonlight Warriors more than once, you finally encounter the big bad himself, Demonyx, and it all comes down to a final, epic battle. Which also brings up the last gameplay style this game presents you with. For BIG boss fights, but mainly for Demonyx himself, the fighting switches to a turn-based RPG style, with command menus and everything!

You might even call it, your Final Fantasy!

In fact, throughout the game you have a sort of "RPG Lite" system going on, as you gradually gain levels, and health, and the damage you can deal out goes up, etc. You not only need to "level grind" a bit if you want to get anywhere against Demonyx, but naturally, you also need all the pieces of the Talisman so you can seal his ass back up! Now the one area where I failed a bit as a kid when playing this, is that the upon beating the game normally, you are told that to get the TRUE ending (or somesuch), you have to beat the game on hard. And even as a kid, after working to beat an ALREADY fairly difficult game, I was like "Nah I'm good". I mean, I wanted to see the full ending, but I also didn't really feel like going through all of that again, but even harder. So I have, to date, never gotten the "True Ending" myself. I know, the shame.

All in all, Flying Warriors is a unique game, and an oddball mish-mash of parts. It isn't perfect, by any means, as the frustrating platforming can attest to. But it IS still a pretty solid game, and one worth checking out. I don't have the kind of patience and dedication to beat even crappy or hard-as-nails games that I had when I was young, but I'd still like to beat this game again someday. Though probably not on hard. I'm too old for that shit.