Look, it’s been a while since I’ve made a post. Nobody noticed, thank god, but it bothered ME and that’s the important thing. So no tearful explanations of my absence or what I’ve been doing in the meantime, back to NERD SHIT!
So lately, in addition to my unhealthily expanding Transformers collection (which I can probably go a while without writing about again, lucky you) I’ve been going around buying old games. My problem is that I’ve been sort of scattershot in my efforts; sometimes I spend a month buying a ton of Game Boy games out of nowhere, sometimes I decide I’m all about Genesis and Sega CD titles, other times I remember all the NES games I’ve meant to play for years. And that’s where the idea for this (and future, similar) articles came from: now that I get to decide how I spend my money like a grown up, I’ve decided to go back and find games I’ve read about forever ago, or someone recommended to me, or whatever. There’s way too many games out there I’ve wanted to play and never did, let alone the stuff like Taboo or Pictionary that I’m aware of and won’t play because look at them why would I bother playing Pictionary on the fucking Nintendo who the fuck bought this game this is the worst Christmas ever.
With a song in my heart (The Holy Mess’ “Spencer Reid”, specifically) and fond remembrance on my mind, I want to inaugurate this series of articles with some of the most ’90s shit imaginable. What did our readers win, Swerve and Hubcap?!
“Pater”, a child may ask you, “Pater, what was youth culture like in those days before the second Clinton administration?” You may be unsure what to tell the child; do you hand them a flannel and make them listen to Nevermind? Do you clumsily attempt to explain the rules of POG while an episode of Doug plays in the background? Or do you just make them play the weird localization of Totally Rad?
Totally Rad, known as the less bodacious but perhaps more indicative of what the game is actually about Magic John in its homeland of Japan, is/was a little-loved action platformer released in 1991, nearer the end of the NES’ lifespan, and not given a giant push in advertising or media to much degree other than this magazine ad, which both goes a great and terrible job explaining what you’re in for:
In a simple and reductive kind of way, Totally Rad is essentially a Mega Man clone not unlike a handful of other later NES releases like The Krion Conquest or Jaleco’s OTHER (and arguably superior) Mega Man ripoff, Shatterhand, minus a couple of elements like the ability to select what level you’re playing, or the need to defeat bosses to gather up your powers.
The plot (and we’ll get into that in more detail later) revolves around you, a Sad Keanu Reeves looking fellow named Jake, granted inexplicable magic powers by a floating head in a big hat named Zebediah Pong (explaining the big P on his hat, lest anyone assume his name is spelled/pronounced Pzebediah), off to save your girlfriend (the oddly old looking Vanessa) and later on her vaguely defined ‘professor’ father from…something. Events in Totally Rad are explained to you via Ninja Gaiden-esq cutscenes that manage to not actually tell you a lot at all. You don’t know the name of the main bad guy until after he’s dead, and it is only moments before you fight him when you learn who all these things are and what they’re doing here. It’s sort of like a hamfisted beach slang version of Castlevania 2 what with all the obtuseness.
Okay, so it isn’t fair to knock a NES game for a vague plot since they all had them and, really, in those days who gave a shit? Luckily, Totally Rad‘s important part – the gameplay – is fun enough, if not both a bit derivative and balls hard at first. By yourself, as Regular Jake, you have a charge attack not unlike the later Mega Busters, and even though you can’t hold a charge shot while jumping (and that took a while to get the hang of) it’s helpful enough. And as I bought this game without the box or manual, I…kinda thought that’s all you had at first.
As a result, Totally Rad was totally kicking my lilywhite ass.
My usual strategy of ‘bumble forward until you find a health pickup’ was greatly waylaid by the fact there weren’t any goddamned powerups anywhere. Frustrated, I hit ‘pause’ and then saw a primitive menu of just icons; some sensible (hearts? fireballs? sure, I got this) and a few that made less sense (a fish guy head? some kind of paw print?). I picked one of them that looked helpful and…nothing happened. I was completely expecting some kind of Mega Man instant transformation where my magic had turned me into a sexy lion-man or something. Nope. There I was, still bumbling around as Jake. I died shortly thereafter.
Later on, in a fit of rage, I mashed up + B by accident and, after Jake did this awesome “Dr. Strange in jean shorts” pose, I suddenly had WAY MORE HEALTH! That’s it! You have to actually use this dingus powers, ya dingus! And then Totally Rad got a lot more enjoyable.
This is probably my favorite part of Totally Rad: the usage of powers. Whereas Mega Man basically just asks you to save your powers until the Robot Masters show up, Totally Rad both encourages and forces you to maintain a working knowledge of what all of your powers do and when the best times to deploy them are. And you don’t ever get any pickups to restore your limited magic meter, so half of the fun/hateful challenge comes from rationing your magic. Do you restore all of your hearts now to ensure you can get to the end? Or do you only restore half of your hearts so you can turn into some bitchin’ half-angel half-Ultraman to fight the last boss? It’s an interesting power juggle that other games with universally-powered special weapons like Journey to Silius don’t really have due to power-ups, a more powerful main character, or both. JAKE, YOU ARE NOTHING WITHOUT YOUR MAGIC!
As emblematic of its time period as Totally Rad’s characterization and dialogue are, the art style really helps to place it of a time. There was a period slightly farther into the NES’ time on top where a lot of games started to get weirdly detailed and kind of horrific. Think about something like Monster Party or Abadox: The Deadly Inner War; colorful enough on the outside, but a lot of the bad guys tend to be pretty detailed and kind of gross looking. One of Totally Rad’s most well-known enemies is this weird flamboyant doo-doo corn punk rocker, and for good reason:
And that right there kind of sums up the weird dichotomy between Totally Rad’s enemies and character designs. Jake himself is a pretty well-animated cutesy NES sprite, full of primary colors and very Terrence and Philip-looking facial expressions. His enemies, however, run the gauntlet from solid-color exploding balloons and android frogs to horribly detailed mutant insects, brightly colored Toxic Avengers hazmat troopers, and some kind of fat Mr. Freeze in a little hoverpod. The art is all over the damn place, and it kind of adds a horrible undertone to Jake’s adventure: where the hell are these hideous beasts coming from and what do you suppose is happening to your girlfriend while she’s gone? It’s gross as hell, whatever it is.
This gross art style is probably the thing that made this game stick out in my mind as a kid. Much like everyone everywhere did, I would read video game magazines, mostly for games/platforms I didn’t own, and sit around wondering how much fun they must be. This was mostly from a huge pile of back issues of Game Player’s my dad got me at a dollar store. I KNEW I’d seen Totally Rad in one of them, but while playing it I couldn’t quite place where…until THIS asshole showed up.
EUGH. I KNEW I had seen this giant robot flea demon somewhere before, but I couldn’t place where. Thanks for haunting my adolescent nightmares, Totally Rad! (Anytime, Tim!)
So before I wrap this up, I do feel like I need to address an elephant in the room: the goofy-ass localization. Better websites than mine have documented it (such as http://www.lanceandeskimo.com/chefelf/gam_totallyrad.shtml) so I won’t waste a ton of time going into it, but it’s fair to say that the hardcore “California surfer dude” dialogue inserted into the translation is probably the biggest reason people know about Totally Rad in this day and age.
Why did it happen? Let’s face facts, Totally Rad wasn’t (and isn’t) the only game to have things translated strangely or re-drawn in the game itself to make it more palatable to an American audience. Magic John’s original plot of a young man fighting underground creatures to help a clumsy and elderly magician named Pong would’ve been perceived as pretty weenie by gamers of 1991, who even then were starting to skew a bit older (and may have been playing NES games for the full 6-7 years they were available at that point) and found it legitimately cool to talk like that in those days. Strip away all ironic pretense you might have about the time period and place yourself in the shoes of an 8-11 year old presented with a video game back in 1991: would you have had more fun being some fat kid in short pants, or do you wanna be the guy in his teens who wandered right out of Bill and Ted and given magic hand blasts? Or, I guess to make it a simpler choice: do you wanna be your cooler older brother, or Pudgy Wing-Hatted Manga Milhouse?
Alright, this is already a bit long. Was Totally Rad worth the intervening years between learning about it and actually playing it? Yes and no. Young Tim would’ve had a really goddamn hard time with this game, and probably would’ve spent plenty of time bitching to his school chums about how it doesn’t have any goddamn powerups and why the hell do I turn into some kind of magic lightning bear? With the benefit of hindsight, I can like it for what it is; it takes a pretty well-worn NES formula and add some twists to at least make you approach it differently, even if the random difficulty spikes (and complete lack of warning that your continues are limited WHICH IS THE FUCKING WORST) make it kind of a slog. I’m glad I spent the tenbux on a physical copy and I could actually see myself going back to play it after this article is done.
So overall, what slang term would I use to best describe this game? Mad Decent.
I hope to start updating more often than this, and for everyone that actually reads my whining and garbage – thank you! Let’s see how Video-Tron Phase 2 turns out!