Before reports of controversial business decisions and publicized rifts within the workforce, Konami was once regarded as the king of classic coin-ops and master of console game development. Looking through their back catalog, it’s hard to deny that their influence across the gaming industry has been incredibly important to the success story that it is today. This year marks the company’s 50th anniversary since Kagemasa Kozuki turned a little jukebox repair shop into one of the biggest names in interactive entertainment. It’s important then, that they should try to make the effort to rekindle back some of that respect and celebrate the quality and magic that the multi-corporate giant was once well known for. With that said, what better way to do just that than to release not just one, but three planned Anniversary Collections of treasured memories.
The Castlevania and Contra compilations make their way to the Nintendo Switch before and soon after a dream of spring ends. This collection of arcade classics will aim to reawaken old nerves of nostalgic gamers while strengthening the myelin sheaths that once wrapped securely around them. The Konami Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection delves back towards its early development days of wooden cabinets and giant system boards. But rather than focusing on a wider range of genres that the company has under their belt, this collection focuses more on their string of tough arcade shooters.
It seems like a strange choice not to simply name this release based on the games included. After all, four of the titles in this particular collection are related to the Gradius series, while the remaining few still take to the skies with a reign of bullets in a similar fashion. One big exception is the oddball, Haunted Mansion – an arcade revision of the early Castlevania games that’s hard as nails and feels completely out of place here. You could call it a warm-up for things to come, but it would have made much more sense to completely fill this release with a full package based on the genre that dominates it.
Not to scoff too much at the games that are included though, because most of the choices are bonafide classics that still hold up well today. The original Nemesis (aka Gradius) is as addictive and challenging now as it’s ever been. The way the weapon bar implements an interesting source of strategy based on how many power orbs you collect still somehow feels fresh and current by today’s standards. Its sequel, Gradius 2 (known in the west as Vulcan Venture), would keep the same power bar with the added benefit of choosing a preset weapon layout before venturing forth into the action. The visual improvements of giant suns and fire dragons looked amazing for its time, along with more freedom to move the pilot around in comparison to its predecessor.
Scramble, the precursor of the series, is the 1981 game that Gradius was built upon and still has that pungent smell of the golden age of arcade greatness. While on the other hand, 1988’s Lifeforce (or Salamander) was more of a spin-off to the series and happens to be one of my most cherished games of all time. The memories of shooting down everything in sequence to gain power-ups until the ship gets rigged out like a drug dealer in JD Sports is a fantastic power trip of nostalgia. Furthermore, the idea of venturing through a giant organism still opens up my imagination as it did back when I used to bang in the Konami code for an extra 30 lives on my NES as a kid.
1987’s Typhoon (known as A-Jax in Japan) would blend together gameplay elements similar to SEGA’s Afterburner with vertical scrolling combat and further nods to the Gradius series. Typhoon’s bomb mechanics and pixelated crosshair strongly resemble Namco’s 1982 classic Xevious, which, in turn, paved the way for Konami’s 1985 Japanese favorite that’s also on the list, Twinbee. However, Twinbee’s cutesy aesthetic and unique interaction between two players would make it different enough not to step on Namco’s toes.
The final game on the list is 1988’s Thunder Cross. Probably the most advanced looking game of the bunch in how it implemented a parallax scrolling technique that would quickly become common practice for future arcade games. The different versions between the US, Japanese, and European releases would have different gameplay changes in terms of how weapons are used and the order in how some of the stages are played.
Unfortunately, this segways into the main weakness of the Konami Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection. Most of the games portrayed in this lineup can differ quite substantially across different regions. This particular collection only has the US versions included and, from what I believe, the Japanese releases are all native to theirs. It’s a real shame really, as it would be great to be able to spot the differences first hand as well as secure this package as a celebration of times past. Digital Eclipse’s own effort with SNK 40th Anniversary Collection really set the benchmark by including different regions as well as console ports to truly educate the player. It’s hard to understand why Hamster Corporation, the team responsible for this release, has not quite done the same here. Especially considering that their own Arcade Archives lineup usually has multiple versions intact.
There is at least some effort to provide a bit of background to the timeless games that are included. A 100-page ebook sits in between the choices of eight titles with interviews with developers, sheet music of the games included, plus a handful of storyboard artwork. Yet, despite such a rather interesting, albeit necessary feature to add, its presence still seems like a tacked-on afterthought thanks to low-quality page scans. The collection’s interface is a bit dull to look at too, especially considering this is a celebration of gaming history. What would have been great is if each game had a high-res image of the cabinet standing proudly next to them, like with Atari Flashback Classics. Instead, it looks more like it’s been ripped straight from the Wii’s Virtual Console menu.
It isn’t all bad. The options that accompany each game do have difficulty settings as well as auto-fire options and basic scanline filters. Also, many of these games only ever allowed a certain amount of continues with strict checkpoints, regardless of how many coins you could bang in. That made them much more replayable than just instantly respawning you when adding credit. However, it would have been nice to be able to extend that privilege by slapping in the Konami code as both a crutch and a nice little wink towards fans.
As fantastic as some of these classics are, Konami’s Arcade Classics Anniversary Collection is barebone in features and presentation. Its price point isn’t too bad though and fits the Nintendo Switch nicely alongside the other classic compilations already on the system. Other than that, you could always play and compare the original Gradius with the Nintendo Entertainment System – Nintendo Switch Online app as a reminder of how good of a port that version really was.
Version Tested: Nintendo Switch
Review copy provided by Konami