Do your ever have those moments where you see something and it doesn’t leave much of an impact, but then years after you’ve forgotten about it, you see it again and it hits a dormant memory? This was the case for me with a particular NES game.
When I was a small child we would visit my grandmother and at her home was my uncle’s collection of NES games. Even though I was terrible at playing them, I still loved trying them out. Now, at the time I could barely read, and more often than not my brother would be the one actually playing through the games, but they still left impressions on me through the covers, the manuals, or the games themselves.
Although there were the classics, there were some games that were just to complex for a little kid to understand. One such game had a grey label depicting a man in a suit with a machine gun. I found the game hard to follow and I had no idea what I was supposed to do. All I could get from it was that you were exploring a city and there was a lot of reading involved.
As time went on the game fell to the back of my mind. Fast forward more than a decade. I was sitting in my high school library mulling around on the computer when I find a video of “cool action scenes in anime”. There were clips from shows like Trigun, Cowboy Bebop, Full Metal Alchemist, a few I didn’t recognize, and one scene from a movie called The Professional where an assassin makes a near impossible hit. It was this clip that gave me pause. Looking at the hitman, it played at something long forgotten, when suddenly it clicked. It was the man in the suit!
After doing some research, I found that the character was Duke Togo, also known as Golgo 13, a figure with a long history in Japanese comics, movies, and indeed, a presence in the NES library. Golgo 13 was originally a manga series that started in the 60s. The early books have a very James Bond feel with the intensely skilled hitman taking on exceptionally difficult assignments and jobs.
Golgo as a character gets only the slightest background. His history is unimportant in the series as it’s always about the job at hand. Although the very early manga show him being very boastful about his skill and the depth of his plans, his key trait became an intense stoicism. No matter the situation he would say only the bare minimum and it became a guessing game how he would get out of trouble and pull of his jobs.
Over time Golgo appeared in a few live action films in the 70s and two animated films in the 80s and 90s, The Professional and Queen Bee. More recently, there was a Golgo 13 anime that ran in 2008. However the thing that interested me most was that video game I had forgotten all those years ago: Top Secret Episode
A helicopter, carrying a sample of a deadly virus, is flying over New York City when it is suddenly shot down. The virus, known as Cassandra-G, is stolen and the attack has strained tensions between the United States and the USSR.
After an investigation, the CIA determines that the chopper was brought down by a shot from an M16 assault rifle. This leads them to believe that the attacker was the legendary hit man Golgo 13, whose signature weapon is the M16. The CIA believes that the KGB has hired Golgo and is determined to bring him in dead or alive.
However, the intelligence arm of the secret UN organization FIXER, is convinced that the attack is linked to a terrorist group called the Drek Empire. Thinking Golgo a valuable ally, the contact him, determined to keep him safe from the CIA and KGB.
Golgo 13 himself is stopped in East Berlin while traveling and is discretely contacted by FIXER. They wish to hire him to track down the Drek Empire, destroy their organization, and either recover Cassandra-G or ensure it can never be used.
The game’s story is pretty complex and deals with pretty heavy subjects and themes for a NES game. Granted we only ever get a small glimpse into the geopolitics of the Cold War and the spy aspect is very surface level, but it’s still more mature of a plot than most games of the time.
There are multiple gameplay styles on display here. First is side scrolling shooter/platforming. In most areas you will have to explore a city, looking for clues and contacts. While roaming the streets of East Berlin in the first stage, you’ll go from place to place while confronting enemy agents. At first all you can do is kick, but once you take down an enemy, you’ll gain ammo for your pistol. Killing enemies not only gives you ammo, but it heals you as well.
At various points, an enemy will appear in the foreground and initiate a first person attack. In this mode you move the cursor around looking for your attacker. A handy tracker at the bottom of the screen tells you how many are left and what type of enemy your taking down. These sections aren’t terribly difficult, but they are repetitive. They are always triggered at the same point in the exploration stages. So if you’re lost and are going back and forth, you’ll encounter the same fight over and over again. It gets tiring eventually.
Exploration is occasionally broken up by a few special stages. One involves flying a chopper to take out a rival hitman, sending you through a sort of Gradius-like shooter stage, and in another you’re infiltrating an under water base and have to navigate a maze of tunnels.
The biggest levels though are the bases themselves. At a few points you will have to infiltrate terrorist strongholds. These levels are large first person mazes and they are intensely frustrating. Each maze is a single repeated color and none of them have landmarks, so if you get turned around and confused, you can easily get stuck.
Unlike the exploration stages, killing enemies doesn’t restore health and ammo. Now you have to find it hidden throughout the base or hope the enemy drops some. At first these stages make up one or two floors, but the later bases involve multiple buildings and trapdoors that send you down a floor.
As though they knew this would be a problem, the manual contains a full map for each base, though it doesn’t show enemy or traps. Although this helps, you’ll be lucky to get a copy with the manual these days.
While the variety of gameplay styles is ambitious, they tend to fall short and feel underdeveloped. With more focus on fewer, more polished styles it could have been pretty gripping.
Top Secret Episode has very minimalist presentation. There is very little detail in the characters and environments. Enemies are just misshapen lumps of pixels, the levels tend to be blocky arrangements of shapes with the odd landmark, and the mazes are just flat colors with so little variation that they’ll drive you nuts.
The music by Michiharu Hasuya is pretty dull. While the main theme is catchy, the levels just have short loops of music that get pretty grating after a while.
I can see why this game didn’t stick with me through the years. Despite the interesting series it’s based on, the game is dull to look at and a chore to play. It takes a lot of patience and imagination to fill in the blanks.
Normally I’d end things here, however there was another title on the NES that made it’s way to the US. The packaging dropped the Golgo 13 name, but it is definitely a sequel to Top Secret Episode. The Mafat Conspiracy
A US defense satellite is brought down from orbit by an experimental laser guidance system. At an international summit, American and Soviet leaders are enraged to the point of war, when they are suddenly interrupted by a threat from the Mafat Revolutionaries. They threaten to take down every satellite the US and USSR have unless their demands for ransom are met.
Still suspicious of the Soviets, the CIA hire Golgo 13 to eliminate the leader of the Mafat, rescue Dr. Barrows, the scientist who invented the anti-satellite system, and find a way to neutralize it.
Like last time, I think that the story is rather interesting and goes to places that most games of the time didn’t. There’re twists, betrayals, murders, and a current of political intrigue throughout.
The storytelling has been enriched with cutscenes that resemble those in the NES Ninja Gaiden games. The music in these is limited but they do a far better job of conveying the story than just having a character tell you something and you just appearing in a new area.
Gameplay is mostly unchanged from Top Secret Episode. You still have side scrolling exploration stages, however the first person encounters have been removed, there is a greater concentration of enemies and platforming challenges in these stages and they are even sometimes intercut with the maze levels.
There is an important change though, now in side scrolling stages, you don’t recover health from killing enemies, you have to find it in strongholds and buildings or hope for an enemy to drop first aid kits or bullets.
Everything plays much smoother this time. Hit detection is improved and there are two new gameplay modes. First is one that should have been a larger part of the first title, sniping. There are a few key points in the story where you’ll have to take out an important target. Your aim will be affected by wind resistance and distance and you only get one shot per life, making them quite challenging.
The other new addition is a series of driving stages. There are moments where you’ll have to give chase in a sports car and enter a 3rd person driving level. These resemble racing games like Rad Racer and are not unpleasant to look at. Not only do you have to beat a timer in these levels, but you’ll have to drive stick, going between three gear shifts to make the best turns and avoid enemy drivers. These stages are rather impressive, but they can feel slippery at times. The stage seems to start you on turns without giving you the control to avoid going over the curb. Despite the control gripes, these are pretty neat.
The mazes are back in full force and I’m not sure if they are worse or just as bad as before. The harder ones have fewer pitfalls, but now every one of them is just grey. Still no variation and no landmarks. Getting lost is still too easy. Again the manual provides a map for all the main mazes, but good luck getting a copy.
The Mafat Conspiracy has much stronger presentation than Top Secret Episode. Almost all the character sprites were abstract blobs last time, now they have at least enough detail to be made out as people. The environments (mazes not withstanding) are more richly vibrant and detailed.
Music this time round was handled by Toshiko Tasaki. It’s a better sound track overall with more variety and energy in the music. The game has a remix of the theme from Top Secret Episode which makes it feel like an appropriate sequel. The only real fault is that the music in the cutscenes is not dynamic, in that it doesn’t change within them like in Ninja Gaiden, and that the maze theme gets a little grating after a while, though that’s probably more a result of the levels taking so long to navigate.
The Mafat Conspiracy was a very interesting game to come across. The US release doesn’t bill it as a Golgo 13 game like Top Secret Episode did (In Japan it was called Golgo 13 Episode 2: The Riddle of Icarus). Although my main criticism of TSE still applies, that the variety of gameplay leaves each mode underdeveloped, it’s clear that the levels in Mafat are better made and are better executed this time round. The new modes are welcome, and the overall package is greatly improved.
After seeing how much better, though still flawed, the Mafat Conspiracy was, I think it’s a shame that there were no sequels on later consoles. Maybe, given more time, they might have nailed down the right formula and we’d have gotten a thoroughly enjoyable Golgo 13 game. However, it wasn’t to be and Golgo never got a major action game again.
Maybe someday interest will come around again and we’ll see a new Golgo adventure. After all, the 2008 anime series came long after the last animated film, but to be honest I don’t expect much in the future. Some characters have their hayday and fade. In the end, we’ll always have the NES.