Cloud Master / Chuuka Taisen (中華大仙) - Arcade, Master System, Famicom, MSX2, PC Engine, X68000 (1988)
For the most part, there is little remarkable about Chuuka Taisen, which translates to "Great Wizard of the Middle Kingdom," but more often known by its localized name "Cloud Master." It's a sidescrolling shooter from the late 80s, pretty much like any other sidescrolling shooter from the late 80s, which was developed by Hot-B and published by Taito. Its big draw is that it takes place in ancient China, as you control a Monkey King-style character named Michael Chen who flies on a cloud, shooting down enemies like flying ramen bowls, stylized Buddhas, evil pig heads, and racist caricatures of Chinese people.
Wait, what? The Japanese aren't known to be the most politically correct folk, especially to us Americans, but they are aware that we used a similar squint eyed/buck toothed look to mock them during World War II, right? It's either strangely ignorant, or strangely ironic, like Chris Rock directing a ragtime show with white actors in black face.
At any rate, Chuuka Taisen is a tough little game. Your standard shots are pretty weak, and even after collecting a few power-ups - which are sparsely distributed through each stage - you feel a bit underpowered. After killing certain foes, you'll uncover a shop entrance, which allows you to pick one of several subweapons. (Amusingly, each level has a different shopkeeper - one of them has a bowl of ramen for a head.) These includes bombs, multiple directional shots, flame wheels, and other such inventive shots. Although you can only choose from four weapons at a time, they change with each shop, so there's a pretty decent variety. They're still pretty weak, but they're much more versatile than your regular weapon. The secondary weapons have unlimited ammo, at least until you die. Dying also takes you back to a checkpoint earlier in the level.
Classics like R-Type and Gradius have similar checkpoint structures, but they both have one major aspect that Cloud Master doesn't - quality level design. Cloud Master features the same background repeated over and over and over, without any variation in the landscape, and only the different waves of enemies to differentiate one area of the level from the next. Compared to some other shooters, it's not too ferociously difficult, but it quickly grows tiresome. The only really impressive graphics are the huge, colorful bosses, although they're barely animated.
There are only five levels in Cloud Master, making this something of a quick and dirty game. By all accounts it's a pretty mediocre game, yet for some strange reason, it seems to have been ported to almost every major console at the time. Most gamers outside of Japan are probably most familiar with the Sega Master System version, which was ported by Hot-B and only released in North America and Europe. It was also released on the Famicom, ported by a company called Disco. Both are reasonably competent ports, although the Master System version has a very slight graphical edge.
The PC Engine version, dubbed Gokuraku! Chuuka Taisen, is actually a slightly enhanced port. The graphics have been redrawn and actually look a little bit better than the arcade game. There's a small intro cinema, although the segments with the wizard between levels have been removed, and there's only one shopkeeper throughout the game. The levels are mostly similar, but have been altered slightly in certain case - for example, in the second level, you go into an underground cavern halfway through the stage. Most importantly, you can now press the I button to turn around and attack enemies coming from the left side of the screen. The boss fights are all completely new, and force you to take advantage of this ability.
The MSX2 version, distributed on disks, is pretty similar to the Master System version, since it was also ported by Hot-B, although the color palette is different. However, the scrolling is choppy, and some of the enemies are missing. The X68000 version, ported by Sharp, is basically arcade perfect, although it's a bit easier, and has some slightly enhanced music.
The Monkey King: The Legend Begins / Shin Chuuka Taisen: Michael to Meimei no Bouken (新中華大仙マイケルとメイメイの冒険) - Wii (2007)
Even though it received nearly half a dozen ports, Chuuka Taisen never saw a real sequel. Yet, for some reason, a small publisher called Starfish bought the rights from Taito and produced a remake for the Wii. (For the record, Starfish are also the folks behind Heavenly Guardian - the remnants of what used to be Kiki Kaikai 2 - and the DS port of Devilish, another really questionable remake.) It was released in Japan as Shin Chuuka Taisen: Michael to Meimei no Bouken (Michael and Meimei's Adventure), and published in North American by UFO under the name The Monkey King: The Legend Begins.
The biggest change is obviously the graphics - the main characters now explicitly resemble monkeys, and the requisite Story Mode has them babbling with each other, conversing with villains, and the usual throwaway stuff. All of the graphics are now high res (for standard def TVs) 2D. The spritework itself isn't too bad, and some of the bosses look alright - especially the final foe - but they're once again barely animated at all, and it comes off as kind of cheap. The backgrounds, on the other hand, are appalling. The original arcade game was dull, but at least it was bright. Everything here looks severely washed out - for a game that's supposed to be colorful and light-hearted, instead it looks drab and depressing. And they're still just as repetitive as in the twenty year old arcade game.
The game itself is pretty much the same as the original arcade release. You're supposed to play with the Wii Remote turned on its side - the big gimmick is that you can move the controller and tilt the screen, making it scroll faster or slower, depending on the direction. It makes the stages a little less dull, since the action can be made to move along at a faster pace, or slowed down to catch power-ups, but there's really little tangible benefit in speeding through a level.
You still start off in an extremely weak state, and need to power up to get anywhere, with one major problem - you're extremely slow. The original game featured speed-up items, but your default speed was quick enough that you didn't need them. Here, you need to gather at least three of them to reach an acceptable speed. Additionally, the game is much easier - you have a life bar and can take several hits, plus you resurrect automatically when you die. You're sent back to the beginning of the level when you run out of lives, but still. What was originally a fairly difficult game is now easy and insubstantial, even on the hardest setting.
Most of the levels are the same, with the addition of one totally new level which takes place in Hell. Here, you refight all of the old bosses, then take on a new final enemy. After this, you need to go through all of the stages in reverse, flying from right to left. It's an interesting twist, but it's not nearly enough to save the game.
It's still baffling how this even got made to begin with, considering it's a mediocre remake of an already mediocre game. The Japanese version is almost understandable - potentially it could sell on nostalgic name value, as long in the tooth classic gamers may remember the name and pick it up. The bright cover artwork might also fool buyers into thinking it's a kids game. On the other hand, absolutely no one knows nor cares about Cloud Master anywhere else on the planet - you can't even make the correlation easily due to the title change - and the cover art and localized name are incredibly generic. Who is this selling too, exactly?
Daiseiou is the Japanese name of a Hong Kong comic book based on the The Monkey King legend. Since Starfish already had the basic engine in place, they probably figured it would be a brilliant idea to grab the license and make a more "mature" sequel to their previous game, where all the villains travel in giant air fortresses and space vehicles, and the hero's cloud turns into a scantily-clad genie for the cutscenes. In the US the game was once again disenfranchised, and released as Saint.
Each stage in Saint is split into three phases. The first each time is a horizontally scrolling shooting game which plays almost exactly the same as The Monkey King. The upgrade system works the same, and even the way special weapons are acquired in a room after shooting down a stronger enemy works identical. Most enemies even mirror looks and patterns from Starfish's earlier game, but there are three major differences: First, there are two types of weapons Son Goku (the English version took over the Japanese pronounciation of names even though the comic originates in Hong Kong) can switch between by picking up the respective upgrades, with the knifes being stronger than the fireballs but limited by a more narrow shot. If either of the weapons is charged to maximum, the hero turns into an angry red monkey man for a limited time, whose only but big advantage is his ability to summon a huge staff that swivels across the screen and kills everything in its way. Finally, if the player doesn't press the fire button for a few second, Son Goku automatically charges up for a slash with his staff, which is quite destructive and can deflect enemy bullets, but is mostly useless due to its short range and delayed execution. Especially the latter can easily get you killed if you end up triggering the attack unintentionally.
After this follows a Space Harrier style 3D level. These not only look terrible, but there is no sense of depth to the presentation, which makes it hard to even avoid enemies and almost impossible to intentionally hit anything, despite some weird aiming rectangle that's entirely unhelpful. At the end of these segments, Son Goku always approaches the next flying fortress and he has to incapacitate it before he can get in close and challenge the boss.
The boss fights take place in a strange little arena reminiscent of Defender or Fantasy Zone, as you can fly back and forth around it while the enemy approaches from one side. Unfortunately, there's not much too the boss battles and the most effective tactic usually is to get a sub weapon that can be spammed like crazy and do exactly that.
Saint may be more versatile than Monkey King, but none of the parts really work, and especially the big sprites with unforgiving hit detection make it an exercise in frustration. It can be played by three players at once, but even alone the screen often becomes an unintelligible mess. On the Normal difficulty levels the bosses take a ridiculous amount of abuse, while on Easy everything is just mind-numbingly dull and meaningless. Who would have thought that a mediocre game plus license plus half-hearted genre shifts would not make a classic?