He comes from space, he's beloved by children, he beats up monsters and he wears a red-and-silver suit: it's Santa Claus! Ho ho ho, Merry Christmas, alien scum! And then Santa punches the Brozzarian Gorebeast right in one of its seven mouths. But that's enough about the development of my space-themed "Future X-Mas" television series - this game is called Ultraman Club: Kaijuu Dai Kessen, it's for the NES / Famicom and it's about Ultraman! You should still keep an eye out for "Slay Ride Over Death-lehem," though. It'll be getting the green light any day now.
That's Ultraman on the left, and he can't even wait until the game begins before he starts fighting monsters. I don't know what that monster looked like before Ultraman smacked him, but its face is now completely indecipherable.
If you don't know who Ultraman is, then, uh, welcome to the club. Okay, so I do at least know the basics of the Ultraman story: a young man uses a space doohickey to transform into Ultraman, a giant superhero who saves the world by grappling with monsters. Of course, this is Japanese so when I say monsters I mean men in rubber suits. Think of it like Godzilla, except instead of movies it's a load of TV series (and games, and movies, and pretty much everything else) and instead of being a big green dinosaur the star is human-shaped and dressed like a speed-skater from a distant alien world. It's hard to understate how much of a pop culture icon Ultraman is in Japan, but for a rough idea I think it's probably fair to compare him to Superman's cachet in the States.
There are multiple Ultramen in Ultraman Club, but we don't get to play as anyone but the original. I think. Like I said, I don't know much about the franchise or even the plot of this game, because it's in Japanese. All I know is that at some point, Ultraman becomes upset.
Are those black dots on Ultraman's eyes his pupils? Is he starting his adventure by staring intently at his nose? Or is he so jealous of Ultraman Number Two's (admittedly impressive) set of horns that he can't bring himself to look him in the eye? What an embarrassing social situation you have found yourself in, Ultraman. Maybe you should just fly into space and let the cold, airless void soothe your burning shame.
See, isn't that better? In space, no-one can hear you mutter about how it isn't fair that Ultraman 2 gets horns and you don't.
Whatever his other faults may be, Ultraman is dedicated to justice and as the Earth burns beneath him he can't help but swoop down to save the day.
Hey look, Ultraman Club is a side-scrolling action platformer. Now that I've recovered from the shock of that stunning revelation, we can see that the Earth has been getting a tough time of it and a fair percentage of the city is either on fire or is being trampled beneath the feet of what looks like a cross between a rhino, a beetle and a witch doctor's mask. Ultraman promptly gets over there and smacks the monster about until it dies, because that all he knows. I'm sure it's obvious to you how this all works - you move from left to right, with one button to jump and one button to attack.
Ultraman's main combat technique is martial arts, and pressing attack will produce a punch which, with repeated hits, can be chained into a short combo. Ultraman also has access to some projectile attacks, which are activated by holding up on the pad and pressing attack, Castlevania style. There are four to choose from, and you can switch between them at any time, with the general rule that the further to the left of the menu an attack is, the less damage it does and the less energy (the white bar under Ultraman's health) it uses.
With all that figured out, you're free to go bounding through the first stage. Many of the staples of the genre show up early - moving platforms, fire pits, enemies that stand still and fire projectiles at you, unable (or too loyal to their evil masters) to move even as Ultraman karate-chops them in whatever part of their anatomy most closely equates to the neck.
There are a couple of other speedbumps to contend with, too. Firstly, the designers of this game really wanted to see Ultraman get hit in the head a lot. The second half of the stage takes place in a cave, and stones fall from the ceiling with great speed, tedious frequency and very little warning, and soon you'll start viewing every hole in the rock above you with the same kind of cautious terror you'd extend to a crocodile hiding in your bathtub.
The other thing is that Ultraman has a time limit. That is to say, Ultraman himself can only use his power for a certain amount of time before he depletes his supply of justice-juice or whatever it is he runs on. It's a fairly common gimmick in Japanese media - the anime fans amongst you might associate it with Evangelion - and it serves as a cheap way to inject some tension into the proceedings. In Ultraman Club, it's nothing more than the bog-standard time limit, and not a massively generous one at that, so the levels need to be tackled with more haste than you might otherwise use in a game like this.
Just as my time was running low and the warning beeps had reached a teeth-clenchingly annoying pitch, I stumbled across the first boss. The good news is that there's no timer in the boss fights, but the bad news is I'm still getting the hang of the controls and Ultraman's rather loose and vague jumping physics.
For his part, the boss is pretty adorable, a trilobite who has learned to walk on two feet. Oh, and learned how to shoot fireballs, which is all he really does. He shoots some fireballs that Ultraman can duck underneath, and then he walks forward a bit. Once he reaches the edge of the screen, he turns around and does it all again. That makes him sound like a doddle to beat, but I did have some trouble with this trilobite due to the very short range of Ultraman's melee attacks and the afore-mentioned issues with the jumping. Once you realise that getting hit by the boss' fireballs causes much more damage than walking into him does, though, you can just about outlast him on the health front and thus clear the first stage.
Between stages, you get to play a mini side-scrolling shooter as Ultraman destroys some asteroids. It is possibly the dullest, most pointless shoot-em-up I have ever played, and I remember the Gummi Ship bits from Kingdom Hearts.
From here on, Ultraman Club follows the same well-travelled path that was laid out in the first stage. It's very reminiscent of the NES Megaman games - there's a little bit of Castlevania in the mix, what with the sub-weapons and the close range attacks, but mostly it's Megaman that you'll be reminded of, especially in stage two as it bears more than a passing resemblance to Metal Man's stage.
So far it's... well, it's not bad. That's about as far as I'm willing to go at this point, but to say I've played worse NES platformers would be a huge understatement, and I'm having a decent time hopping through the obstacle course of conveyor belts and electric barriers and doors labelled "PIG." Okay, now I have to see what's in the PIG room.
I wasn't expecting balloons. Pigs, yes, but not balloons. In fact, I have no idea why these rooms are marked with a big PIG sign at all, because what happens when you enter them is that a lumpy monster with a frown that makes Eeyore look sunny and personable drops three coloured balloons which then float up toward you. Pop the balloons with your fists, collect the prizes inside and congratulations, you've solved the mystery of the PIG room. It seems a bit out of place, but what do I know? I've never seen an episode of Ultraman. Monsters that spread their evil through the medium of party decorations might be a common sight in this universe.
The second boss is a robot, but we'll get to him in a minute. There's something more even interesting in this room, and one of the few things more interesting than a robot is a crucified Ultraman.
Is that the plot of Ultraman Club? My fellow spandex warriors have been abducted and nailed to crosses? No wonder Ultraman looked so upset in the intro.
Oh yeah, the boss. It's a robot that splits into its constituent parts, and these parts float slowly around the room, trying to bump into you. After a while the robot reassembles itself, and you can hurt hit. Yes, it's a lot like the Yellow Devil boss from the Megaman series but without the tension or challenge. The robot parts move so slowly that the only danger of them hitting you comes if you get so bored that you fall asleep, and the robot doesn't stay assembled for long, so the fight is a long, dull waiting game interspersed with the occasional second or two of melee combat. In my haste to actually do something, every time the boss re-formed I was so eager to start pummeling it that I accidentally ran into it and took damage. Every time! If that was the boss' plan all along, then kudos to him, he's certainly got my number.
With a bit of patience the boss is easily defeated, and the crucified Ultraman sparkles briefly before disappearing. I win?
Stage three is the obligatory ice world, and Ultraman is so disgusted by the lascivious grin and bottom-shaking antics of this monster that he can do nothing but curl up into a ball of pure embarrassment. This game is not doing a great job of convincing me that Ultraman is a mighty hero.
As ice stages go, this one isn't so bad - the platforms are a little more slippery than usual, but not enough to be frustrating. No, that task is reserved for the chunks of ice that drop on your head the nanosecond you stop looking at the top of the screen.
At least it has this short rocket-platform section, where you have to either jump or duck to avoid the blocks of ice that appear in front of you as you travel along. It's challenging without being cruel, which is a relief considering it could so easily have reached Battletoads-jetbike-stage levels of frustration, and it's nice to have something a bit different to do besides cowering at the sight of various monsters.
The boss is a dinosaur-looking thing who is as cheerful as the PIG-monster was morose. He's happy because his new "crucified Ultraman" centerpiece really brings his ice-cavern together and provides a wonderful conversation starter whenever he has all his monster friends over for drinks. "Well, it's certainly an... ice-breaker," he says, gesturing around his glacial home with a wry smile.
Okay, that's enough inventing of social lives for fake monsters. As a fight, this guy is a pushover because he's identical to the first boss except he has a move that makes easily-avoided icicles fall from the ceiling. The main difficulty of the first boss was that it could be difficult to jump over him, but Toothy the Happy Dinosaur here has kindly provided some platforms to help me out on that front. He's toast. Next level, please, and you know what always comes after the ice stage? That's right, it's the fire world!
Except it isn't, it's some sort of plant-themed area instead. Consider my mind blown. In every other regard it may be an extremely middle-of-the-road NES platformer, but by not directly following the ice stage with a fire stage (or vice versa) Ultraman Club has assured itself of a spot in my mind as one of the great innovators in the field.
Of course, the gameplay hasn't changed at all, and the differences are all cosmetic - the rising electric barriers are now strange alien tendrils, and instead of rocks falling on you, you're bombarded with what look like Galia melons.
There's one now, plummeting to a sticky end, to break like a sweet, ripe wave against the rocks of my head.
So things just look different, but at least they look differently different. I'm aware that sentence makes no sense, but I'm leaving it in as a warning to myself and others about how bad these articles could be. Anyway, what I meant was that I rather like the way each stage does look very different from the others. Tsuburaya, the developers, achieved this mainly by giving each level a distinct color palette - blue for the ice world, green for this one, Ultraman's trademark red-and-silver for stage two - and for such a small thing it really does make each area feel distinct from the last.
This is the boss, and his gimmick is that he starts off small and grows larger after taking some damage. That's nice and all, but as his attack plan is the exact same "walk left and right, sometimes breathe fireballs" stratagem as the other bosses he doesn't stand much of a chance, even less so when you realise he's thoughtfully placed platforms at the sides of the room so you can avoid all his attacks with ease.
And here's the fire stage. Of course there was always going to be one, wasn't there? At least falling into the lava doesn't kill you instantly, and given that I'm battling against the time limit that's very helpful, not having to stop and line up every jump with pixel-perfect accuracy. Ultraman Club does have something of a pleasing flow - chunky, occasionally awkward, but with enough fluidity to be relatively entertaining.
There's even another rocket-sled section, and I love that little cart. It looks like something I would have built in LittleBigPlanet, so let's hope it doesn't go the way of all the rocket-powered vehicles I made in that game - that way being straight up, followed by an explosion.
The boss is yet another cheerful, prehistoric beast. This one is so frightened of damaging its limited-edition "crucified Ultraman" figurine that he's had it encased in Lucite and buried under the floor of his lair, where he will protect it with all the combat techniques at his disposal. Those combat techniques are "walk back and forth" and "launch a projectile." Do these monsters not receive training from whatever evil empire is using them to destroy the Earth, or is it that they've never come up against an opponent as tough as Ultraman before? "We walked back and forth, and yet still he defeated us! I don't understand, briskly moving along the same patch of ground over and over again has always worked in the past for us, the Legion of Underprepared Monsters!"
This is the easiest boss in the game, by the way. He doesn't seem to know how to turn around, so if you can get behind him and start flailing away, he'll run out of health before you do.
Stage six has a new theme - bones - and some new enemies. Sort of new, anyway. They look different, which is about all Ultraman Club does to disguise the fact that there are only three types of enemy in the game. There are monsters that charge at you the moment they see you, there are monsters who stand still and fire projectiles and there are monsters who fire projectiles and then jump away from you when you get close. Sometimes they look different, but all of them have one of these three movement patterns.
It's not just the normal enemies that get recycled either, because this stage belongs to that wonderful, enthralling, exciting and in no way cheap and boring category - the Boss Rush!
That multi-part robot boss is somehow even more tedious the second time around. I wouldn't have thought it possible, but there you go.
Once you've re-defeated all the bosses you had previously given a thorough slapping, there's a brand-new foe waiting to test your might, and it's... you? Duhn duhn duuuhn, dramatic reveal and all that. It turns out the computer is even worse at controlling Ultraman than I am - and if you'd seen how often I fell into the lava during the fire stage, you'd know just how bad that is - so this fight is a snap if you remember to stay behind him/yourself as much as possible.
Then the boss reveals his true form, which appears to be roughly 80% custard and 20% confusion. Look at those eyes, he's got no idea where he is, what's going on or why there's a crucified spaceman hanging in the corner of his room. His mental disarray manifests as a simple and repetitive pattern or behaviour where he climbs up the wall, vomits some undefined substance at you, falls to the ground and repeats the process. Just stand underneath him when he's on the wall, run out and punch him when he falls to the ground. You can easily defeat this guy without taking any damage, and I'm left to wonder why it is that the bosses are getting easier as the game progresses. I know it's not me getting better at the game because, as I mentioned, those lava pits etc., etc. Maybe they're trying to lower my guard before the final boss. Will the final boss be an absolute nightmare? Well, let's find out, because that's what's coming up next.
I was expecting something just a touch more impressive, but I suppose this glowing humanoid fits in nicely with all the other ineffectual bosses. He bounces up and down the screen in a diagonal pattern, launching a bolt of energy every now and then, and he has one more power tucked away in his radiant body - he's completely bloody invincible. I fought him for a long time, long enough to get his pattern down and be on top of the fight, but eventually he wore down my health and I used up all my health-restoring power-ups as we chipped away at each other. With no health left at all, he eventually killed me.
This triggers a short cutscene where a load of Ultramen, presumably the ones I've been rescuing from crucifixion throughout the game, fire a ball of energy at the boss. Thanks guys, but you might want to work on your timing. I had three health kits going into this fight, and I've used them all up trying to overcome this Ready Brek-powered arsehole and his unhinted-at scripted bullshit.
Okay, now he's weakened I can win the fight by doing the same thing I was doing before. If nothing else, at least this article will serve as a warning to other people who might be thinking about playing Ultraman Club - when you reach the boss who looks like he's just escaped from a Pelican Crossing, let him beat you up. It'll save you time, health packs and that frustrated feeling that comes with bad game design.
The universe is saved, and Ultraman files off into space as the humans struggle to rebuild their devastated planet. Good work, Ultraman, but maybe next time bring a gun or something,yeah?
So, that's Ultraman Club: Kaijuu Dai Kessen. As Megaman-style NES platformers go, I've played better (Megaman, obviously) but I've also played worse (like Magical Doropie) and overall there's enough here to recommend Ultraman Club if you've already played all the better-known games of this type. The controls are a little stiff but not to a degree that puts much of a dent in the gameplay, and while it does get a little repetitive (and also features a boss rush) it's short enough that it's not too gruelling. The graphics are above average, with some good backgrounds and adorable monsters, and really my only major gripe with the game is that last boss - if you're going to have a scripted encounter that you cannot defeat, make sure it's at least a little obvious that the boss is far more powerful than you can doesn't just have a ludicrously long health bar.
And remember - Ultraman Christ died for your sins.