If you grew up on the NES or Super Nintendo as I did, there's an awfully good chance you played one or more games from a great little company called Konami. Back in the day, they quickly established themselves as one of the premiere third party companies working for Nintendo thanks to blockbuster franchises like Castlevania and Contra. Their games were usually always the highest of quality, and they often pushed the limits of what the system their games appeared on could do.
In 1989, Konami stumbled upon the wonderful world of licensed games, when they secured the rights to make games based on the newest smash trend with kids, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That year, they released both a game for the NES, and an arcade game that dazzled kids with graphics nearly identical to the cartoon and four player action. Both games proved to be smash hits, since pretty much everything with the Turtles' faces on it was a guaranteed license to print money back in the day. But, it was also thanks to this that Konami started looking for other cartoon licenses to pick up and translate into video games for the home and arcade.
This led to a string of hit titles based on everything from the monumental Simpsons arcade game, to a series of games for home consoles based on Tiny Toon Adventures. Given how popular these franchises were, it was easy to see why Konami would want to cash in on them. However, they also picked up a few weird and obscure licenses along the way. And one of those was Bucky O'Hare.
Don't remember Bucky O'Hare? I'm not surprised. His syndicated cartoon only ran for one season and 13 Episodes back in the fall of 1991. Someone must have thought Bucky was going to be the next big thing, as not only did he get a Koanmi video game, but he also got a high quality line of action figures from Hasbro. However, Bucky never quite took off with the kids. The cartoon was quietly canceled, and nobody really missed or noticed that the show was gone. He did have an awesome theme song, though, which I have supplied above.
So, the Bucky O'Hare cartoon was basically a flop and is not even remembered today. Why am I writing about the video game? Because it's honestly one of the best games ever programmed for the Nintendo. Seriously. No joke. Konami took their bizarre license, and crafted 8-Bit gold. Since tracking down a used copy of the game, I have returned to play it many times, and I want the whole world (or at least all of Retro Junk) to know of its glories, since not many people have played it. But before I dive into the game, I should probably talk a little about the franchise first.
Just like the Ninja Turtles, Bucky started out as an independent comic book in the mid 80s. Written by Larry Hama (best known for his work on Marvel with titles like Wolverine and the G.I. Joe comic from the 80s) and drawn by Michael Golden (whose work has spanned from Batman to Superman to even Howard the Duck), the comic told the story of a parallel universe called the Aniverse, where animals are the dominant intelligent species, and have mastered space and planetary travel. Somewhere in the Aniverse, a planet of toads has been taken over by a super computer known as KOMPLEX. This computer was created by toad scientists to make everyone's lives easier, and to basically do the everyday things that the toads themselves didn't want to do. However, KOMPLEX became too intelligent, and realized that it was smarter than the ones he was serving. He brainwashed the entire toad population, and turned their planet into a military stronghold. The Toad Empire now spreads fear throughout the galaxy as they conquer one planet after another, giving KOMPLEX control over other species, with the goal of conquering the entire Aniverse.
Bucky and the crew of the Righteous Indignation.
The only thing standing in the way of the toads is Bucky O'Hare, a brave green rabbit from the planet Warren, who has decided to fight back against KOMPLEX's tyranny with his ship, the Righteous Indignation. Bucky also has a brave crew by his side to help him fight, which includes Jenny (a cat from the planet Aldebaran with amazing psychic and mental powers), Blinky (a tiny, one-eyed android), Deadeye Duck (a duck with four arms who used to be a space pirate before he joined Bucky's crew as the ship's gunner), and Willy DuWitt (a boy genius from Earth who gets pulled into the Aniverse with the help of a transporter device that he invented). In the comic, Bucky is also aided by Bruiser, a massive Betelgeusian Berserker Baboon who is powerful and strong. However, for whatever reason, he is not included in the game. Maybe Konami didn't like him or something, which makes me feel bad for the big guy.
The comic did not run very long, as it only has one graphic novel that collects all the issues that were ever made. However, apparently someone thought Bucky would go over well with kids, as in 1991, he was given his own cartoon series and toy line to accompany it. As already mentioned, Bucky fell short of expectations. I guess people just aren't into the idea of a green rabbit saving the galaxy from evil toads. What's funny is that just two years after Bucky O'Hare came and went from the public mind, Nintendo released the StarFox video game for the SNES, which had a very similar idea and story, and went on to be a profitable franchise for the company. Perhaps Bucky was just ahead of his time.
So, in early 1992, as the cartoon series was already winding down, Konami released a Bucky O'Hare video game for the NES. This was just bad timing on just about every level on Koanmi's part. For one thing, the show had already aired all of its episodes, and new ones weren't being made. And also, at this time, the SNES had just come out about six months earlier, and the NES was pretty much already seen as being obsolete. Given the license and the platform it was on, nobody paid it much mind. I remember seeing the game being advertised in some magazines, and being curious, since Konami was one of my favorite game companies back then alongside Capcom. But, like everyone else, I ignored it.
Flash forward 24 years later, and while scouring for some retro games, I come upon Bucky O'Hare. I had vague memories of the show, but again, the game caught my eye because of the Konami logo, and the fact that it was a complete in box copy. (Always a way to grab the interest of a collector like me.) I remember hearing some good things from some friends who had played it, so i figured I had nothing to lose. I bring it home, and what do I find other than one of the great hidden treasures of the NES library. Seriously, if Bucky O'Hare had been more successful, and if this game had come out a couple years earlier, this would rank with many as one of the true classics for the system. This game has great graphics, excellent music, extremely fun gameplay, and a difficulty that is the very definition of "extremely tough but also fair", so you want to keep on playing until you see the end.
As is to be expected, the plot behind the game is as basic as can be. Bucky's crew consisting of Jenny, Deadeye, Blinky and Willy have been captured by the Toads, and you as Bucky have to save them. No, really, that's all there is to it. When the game starts, you get a "level select" consisting of four different planets where each of your friends are being held captive on. These include the "Green Planet" - a forest world filled with bugs, towering trees and dangerous waterfalls, the "Red Planet", which is filled with fire and deadly lava flows, the "Blue Planet", which is covered with ice and snow, and the desert-like "Yellow Planet". You can tackle these levels in any order, but it's highly recommended you at least start at the Green Planet, which is arguably the easiest of the four introductory levels, and allows you to get the gist of the game.
Like the best games of the time period, each level is extremely unique, and you never feel like you're doing the same thing in every stage. On the forest world, you ride across raging rivers on logs, and have to climb towering trees. The fire-filled Red Planet has you riding on top of boulders across burning fire, and making your way down a giant maze-like shaft while a relentless lava flow pursues you. The ice planet will have you breaking ice blocks, leaping across glaciers, and riding on a massive iceberg which is slowly blasted away by a giant Toad Ship that flies overhead dropping bombs, until you are riding only on a tiny little ice shard by the time it's done. On the Yellow Planet, you will face giant insects that live in craters, and even ride on a runaway mine cart, dodging spikes and other obstacles. At the end of every level, you'll face a boss. Most of them are massive Toad weapons and tanks, but a few villains from the cartoon do show up as bosses, such as Toadborg (a former toad storm trooper who was killed and brought back in a robotic body ala Robocop), Al Negator (a sleazy alligator hit man and hired gun working for the toads) and the Toad Air Marshall, who serves as the final boss of the game.
When you clear a level and rescue one of Bucky's crew, they not only are grateful, but you get to play as them for the rest of the game. With a simple push of the Select button, you can cycle through Bucky and the various characters you have rescued up to that point. Each character has his or her own unique special ability, which can be powered up by holding down the B Button. Since Bucky is a rabbit, he has the best jumping ability, and can reach high platforms. Blinky the android has a curving shot that can be extremely useful for hitting hard to each enemies, and when you charge up his Power meeting, he can fly with the aid of a jet pack. Jenny's main attack is a powerful laser which can shoot straight ahead, but her best attack is when you store up her Power meter, which allows her to shoot an orb of psychic energy which you can actually control and have it fly around the screen, taking out any enemy in its path or causing damage to end bosses from a safe distance. Deadeye Duck is armed with a three-way spread shot gun, and when his Power meeter is charged, he can cling to walls and climb up them. (Since, as you know, ducks are famous for their spider-like wall crawling abilities.) Finally, the Earth boy Willy has a powerful gun that, when charged up, can pretty much kill just about any enemy except bosses with a single shot.
You can choose to rescue your friends in any order, but as I mentioned, it's highly recommended that you tackle the Green Planet level first. Not only is it the easiest of the four worlds, but you also rescue Blinky the android, who will be extremely useful to you early on with his jet pack. You also definitely need him before you tackle the Blue Planet ice level, as his shots are the only thing that can blast the ice blocks that block your way throughout the level. Once you rescue all four of your friends...THEY GET KIDNAPPED AGAIN!! I kid you not. Bucky's ship gets captured by the Toad Mother Ship, and you find yourself in a massive prison, where you have to track down your friends again who are being held in separate cells. This time around, when you find your friends, you have to do battle with them, as the Toad Air Marshall shows up and brainwashes your friend, starting a short boss battle. Once all of your friends have had their memory restored, they are yours to use for the remainder of the game. From that point on, Bucky and his crew must escape from prison, find a way to destroy the Mother Ship, and make their daring escape. In all, there are 8 levels total.
This really is a game divided into two parts. The first four levels where you're exploring different worlds are varied, but a fairly basic platformer. An incredibly well designed one, mind you, but fairly basic. The second half of the game set within the Toad Mother Ship is where things start to get really interesting, as there are a lot more puzzle elements, and areas where you have to use the skills of your different friends in order to pass safely. The areas set in the Toad Mother Ship also throw in some unique elements, such as a stage where you're flying on a speeder bike, blasting at enemies that come toward and from behind you. It's this diversity that makes Bucky O'Hare so much fun. Every level has a new surprise or unique element, and learning how to use your characters skills is all part of the fun. And even though 8 levels doesn't sound like much, this definitely isn't a game you're going to beat in a single sitting.
That's because Bucky O'Hare is hard in that special way that a lot of games from the era were. There are a lot of traps and rooms where you have to race or memorize a pattern in order to survive, and until you have that pattern down pat, you'd better get used to seeing your character meet an untimely end. Even though you ultimately get five characters to play as, they all share the same life meter, so you can't switch to a different character if the one you're using is running low. Also, every level is absolutely crawling with "instant death" moments. Whether it's falling in water, being smashed into spikes while riding on a runaway mining cart, accidentally touching the head of a robot snake that you are riding on the back of in order to cross a massive chasm, being struck by a lava flow that is constantly pursuing you as you make your way down a massive shaft (don't make a wrong turn here or it's instant death), or falling down those pesky bottomless pits that are a necessary evil in every platform game, you will die and die often playing this game.
If you are one of the easily frustrated, please do not let this turn you off. Yes, Bucky is an incredibly hard game, but the programmers have decided to give you as many advantages as possible. This is what sets this game apart from the dozens of other NES games that are far too frustrating to be fun. (I'm lookin' at you, Battletoads!!) For one thing, the game gives you unlimited continues. Always a nice feature. Not only that, but when you continue, you get to start right in the part where you died. YES!!! You have no idea how much of a gift this is from games of this type. Back in the day, so many games would let you continue, but you would have to start back at the start of the level and work back to where you died, or they would give you checkpoints, but they would only be at random parts of the level. In Bucky O'Hare, every screen is its own checkpoint, so if you die, you always start right where you need to be. The game is also generous in giving you extra lives (whether through finding them, or earning points), so it's very easy to rack up a large number of reserve lives. So, even though you will die frequently, you will never feel like the game is not playing fair, or not giving you a chance. When you die, it is your fault. There are no "cheap moments", where you're forced to get hurt in order to get past a certain part. Not only that, but the control on Bucky and his friends is spot on. You can stop on a dime, fire at will, and make jumps with ease. This is an incredibly well designed game, and you can tell that the programmers did an amazing job of passing out some punishing difficulty, while also making sure the player did not get frustrated to the point that they wanted to quit.
In terms of power ups, Bucky plays it pretty simple. There are coins that give you bonus points and 1-Ups, but the most important items are the Life Icons (represented by a heart with an L on it) and the Power Icons (a circle with the word "POW" written upon it. The Life Icons will not only fill your health meter to full, but will also increase it. Your health meter ultimately grows to a fairly large size, allowing you to take a lot of damage before you die. However, this is kind of offset by the number of "instant death" moments you will find in every stage that will kill you no matter how strong you may be. The Power Icons are even more valuable, as they will increase your Power meter. This allows you to charge up your character's special attack for a longer period of time. The longer the charge, the more powerful your special attack will be. When you get a Game Over and have to continue, your life meter returns to its regular length, and you have to find the Life Icons in order to maximize it again. This is not as bad as it sounds, as they are plentiful. Your Power Meter, however, stays at the maximum length even if you continue, so you don't have to worry about that. The key to winning in this game is maxing out all 5 character's Power Meter, so that they can reach their strongest level of special attacks that can make short work out of later enemies and bosses.
So yeah, Bucky O'Hare is a great challenge and it plays great too. But what about the graphics and sound? Well, remember when I said earlier that Konami had a knack of pushing systems to the limit? Well, that's definitely the case here. The graphics in this game are outstanding for 8-bit, with very large character sprites that allow you to immediately tell who they're supposed to be. The game captures the look of the cartoon, while giving you unique worlds to play through. But what's most impressive to me visually is how massive some of the sprites get. See the photo above? Here, there are giant Toad Ships zooming across the screen, and you must use them as platforms to reach the top. But what impresses me is not just the size of the sprites. It's the fact that there can be four massive Toad Ships, flying asteroids zipping by that you have to dodge, plus your character all on the screen at the same time, and the game never slows down, sputters, or flickers. I did not know this was possible on the NES! While the Nintendo was a great system, many of its games did feature annoying glitches or slow down if there were too many objects on the screen at one time. But somehow, the programmers here managed to avoid pretty much all of the usual hardware failings you expect to see. This alone not only makes Bucky O'Hare a great game, but a showcase title in the system's massive library.
Equally amazing is the game's soundtrack, which I've been listening to on a loop as I write this article. Anyone into video game music needs to check out this soundtrack (which I have included in the video above, which plays every track in the game), as it's truly one of the better ones to be produced by Nintendo's trusty old 8-bit machine. The soundtrack is comprised mostly of fast-paced futuristic tunes that might remind you of the Mega Man games, along with some grand march-like melodies, such as the "level select" theme. Listen to the soundtrack provided above, and let me know what you think.
It really is a shame that due to the license and the fact that the NES was on the way out when this game was released that not many got to experience this wonderful gem. It's a perfect blend of gameplay, challenge, graphics, and music. Not only that, it's highly addictive. Because the levels are designed so well, you just want to keep on playing to see what comes next, or to see if you can find a safe route through a certain screen that you're on. And even though Bucky O'Hare is not the longest game out there and there are no secrets to unlock (other than a "Hard" mode, which you can unlock by entering "Hard!" - including the exclamation mark - as the password on the title screen), you will definitely find yourself playing this one over and over again, because you'll want to improve your game, and see if you can get through certain levels without dying or at least dying less than you did the first time around. There's always a way, and I've been having a lot of fun trying to crack this title.
Now for the bad news. If you want to play this game, it's not going to be easy to come by. It's quite rare, due to the fact that it wasn't a huge seller back in the day. Because of this, and due to the fact that the game has received a cult following among retro game players who have discovered it, the asking price has shot up quite substantially. For my complete in box copy with original instruction manual, I paid around $180. Even a loose cartridge without the box or instructions will run around $100 easy. And due to the fact that Konami no longer holds the rights to Bucky O'Hare, it was never released for the Virtual Console. So, unless you're a diehard collector like me with money to spend, the best way to experience this game is probably downloading a ROM through an emulator. I normally don't condone this, but due to the scarce and expensive nature of the game, and how I really want this game to be discovered, I'm going to have to label this as an option. It should be easy enough to find a ROM of this game. And if you like it, I encourage you to seek out a physical cartridge.
Bucky O'Hare: The Arcade Game
Doing some research, I have learned that Konami also released an arcade game of Bucky O'Hare right around the same time as the NES title. I never knew this existed, but looking up video longplays of the game on Youtube, I kind of wish I could try it. It's a four player shooter similar to Konami's own Sunset Riders, where you play as Bucky, Jenny, Blinky and Deadeye as you battle the Toads. What's cool about the game is not only does it look like the cartoon, it even features dialogue performed by the show's cast in-between levels. Even cooler, the game serves as kind of a series finale that the show never got. You get to defeat the main enemies from the cartoon, ultimately destroy KOMPLEX, and restore peace to the Aniverse. So, if you were a fan who was disappointed that the show never got a proper second season or a conclusion, this game may be just what you're looking for. If you're interested, there are plenty of videos to find on Youtube that show off the game in full.
So, with all that said, I hope I have at least built your interest. If you enjoy old school shooter platformers like the classic Mega Man games, then you really must give Bucky O'Hare a chance. You don't have to be familiar with the cartoon or the comics in order to get into it. You just have to enjoy challenging yet fun games from the late 80s and early 90s.
And before I go, I apologize for the delay in my series of the Fall and Holiday Movies of the 90s. I'm working on it as I speak, and the next installment should be up very soon.
Until next time, my fellow Retro Junkers, keep the past alive!