“A hero is an ordinary individual who finds the strength to persevere and endure in spite of overwhelming obstacles.”
Special thanks to Mega Cat Studios first of all for making NES games in the 2010’s. That’s a special kind of awesome, developing new titles for one of the greatest consoles of gaming’s rich past. Secondly, Mega Cat Studios kindly sent us some copies of their games for review, for which I am very grateful. The first game I immediately gravitated toward was Almost Hero. Black NES cartridge. Cover art of a ninja literally jumping the shark. Description labelling it a throwback to the beat ‘em up genre. Yeah of course it was my first choice.
The road to actually playing the game wasn’t an easy one, however. The NES that had served me faithfully for years decided to give up on me shortly after I received Mega Cat’s games. I blew it out as best I could. I even busted out ye olde NES Cleaning Kit but it wouldn’t have it. I read several times before about how to clean the pins and show some much needed TLC to the old girl but time constraints and a severe lack of know-how (I’m seriously dumb when it comes to this kind of thing) dissuaded me from that avenue.
Instead, I decided to wager on another affordable option: picking up a Super Retro Trio by Retro-Bit, at the advice of my wonderfully encyclopedic friend, the Deviot of Comma Eight Comma One. And wouldn’t you know it? After finagling with getting my HDTV to recognize the device’s signal by routing RCA cables into my VCR and then RF cable into my TV, it worked!
I was quite overjoyed to play a new NES game in 2017 when that opening Mega Cat logo came up on my screen. Almost Hero begins by telling you of Omosai, the bonsai capital of the world, and Chow Khan, the old man who sells holiday themed bonsai trees on “Etsi” (presumably a deliberate misspelling of “Etsy” to avoid real-world consequences for the name drop). Your mission as a ninja fresh out of training is to get more bonsai seeds. As you can tell, there’s a layer of lighthearted humor in this game.
Almost Hero is a classic-styled beat ‘em up which takes clear inspiration from River City Ransom, one of my favorite NES games. You’ll recall that when you knocked out baddies in Ransom, they fell over and said ridiculous things like “BARF!” In Almost Hero, I had a good laugh at enemy defeated dialogue such as “This was my ultimate form!” and “I took an arrow to the knee!”
Beyond the humor, what Almost Hero seemed to nail the most is its historical accuracy. No, I’m not referring to ninjas running around collecting bonsai seeds. I don’t play homebrew or clone games too often but this particular one had the unmistakable earmarks of original NES games. Comparing it to something like Shovel Knight, it’s clear that Knight boasts much more polish over Hero, though that’s to the extent that Knight doesn’t contain heavy sprite flicker or perplexing hitboxes. Knight adapted then refined the quirks of the NES, eradicating some of the NES’s more unsavory limitations. That doesn’t seem to have been a deliberate choice on the part of Almost Hero. It’s a game that you could easily mistake for having come from that era. If I told someone it was a “lost NES game” from 1988, developed on the NES, I don’t know that anything within the game itself would give it away, besides for the funny enemy dialogue and pop culture references.
If you haven’t heard of Mega Cat Studios before, check out their work. Here’s a brief description from their website:
We are an independent video game development studio with a global team. At our core, we are passionate game developers and artists who seek to create meaningful experiences through our games and services.
We are all gamers, collectors and enthusiasts first. In a world of cloud storage, download codes and virtual licenses, we are excited and proud to create exclusive artisan collectibles that complement the effort that goes into indie and homebrew development.
We love creating games. From retro cartridges to PC & current generation consoles, we want to make games that are accessible and enjoyable for every gamer.
The 8-bit Review
For better or worse, Almost Hero looks like a legit NES game. Everything from the color palette to the character design, the opening sequence to the pixel art resembles NES games. The boss sprites are particularly delightful. The sprite flicker is tremendous, which may be accurate but it was never one of the high points of retro gaming. It’s tough to grade a game like this released in a very modern age but given its intentional limitations and restrictions, I’m placing it in the context of games of the late 80’s.
Music was what I was most looking forward to from Almost Hero. I love the chiptunes, the warbling electronics, the lightning percussion, the guitar and bass riffs from the era of gaming this game crystallizes. Imagine my horror when my shoddy audio/visual connection via RCA via RF via VCR via third party clone hardware completely dulled the music to muted thumping and little more! That’s when I remembered I have a teeny CRT television, so I whipped out old reliable and enjoyed the audio much more. I also listened to some segments on YouTube, and while the music isn’t as immediately catchy as some of the NES classics were, it’s excitable and provides that sense of drive that pushes the action forward.
When the game begins, you’re dropped into the middle of the field with the old dude Chow Khan in front of you. Khan sells consumables and some upgrades for your martial arts repertoire, but you’ll need to earn some money by defeating ruffians in order to purchase the better wares. Be warned that dying with net you a loss of your coinage.
Beyond, there are several branching areas that you can access, though a few of them are locked. I first wandered into the Dojo and began facing subsequent waves of enemies. I was immediately pummeled to death and my ninja respawned outside where the game began.
The pace of the action in Almost Hero took me by surprise. Fighting seemed to be able simply trading blows with foes, since their punches happened so quickly. In retrospect, this design choice seems appropriate, considering you’re playing as a deft ninja and not a muscled brute street brawler.
So I adapted and resorted to the beat ‘em up trump card: the legendary flying kick. I wove across the battlefield, launching flying kick after flying kick. It was borderline laborious but it got the job done if I didn’t screw up the timing. I even found what looked like a Furby (“Furbi”?) in the middle of one of the rooms that I could pick up and throw at my enemies. Ninja!
This allowed me to make it all the way to the Dojo’s boss fight against a familiar electric mouse, here called Punkachew. The yellow villain threw cascading bolts of lightning at me but he eventually went down to my picking up on his patterns, the bane of practically every NES-era boss.
It wasn’t until I entered the next area, the City, that I began to realize I could do flying kicks without jumping forward. I could just jump in place. This stellar trick, if executed properly, allowed me to avoid enemy punches while kicking them square in the jaw. That got me much more quickly to the next boss fight: the shark from the cover art!
Almost Hero is fairly enjoyable as a throwback, though it can become repetitious. It is a beat ‘em up, after all. It’s even more fun with a second player sitting next to you, again, as is the case with beat ‘em ups. There are two ninjas in the game, Orville and Reginald. The controls do have a degree of unresponsiveness to them and the action felt somewhat blurred for it, though getting some upgrades to your ninja skills takes things up a notch.
This game does benefit from the centrality of its item shop with Chow Khan at the starting point and the ability to backtrack there in any level at any time. I didn’t feel as if I was getting myself lost, as was the case with River City Ransom, the blueprint game for Almost Hero.
You have the option to purchase Almost Hero as just the cartridge or the set with the box and the manual. I’d recommend picking it up with the manual, if you’re interested. The beat ‘em up genre isn’t too hard to break into, considering these games are generally about going around and kicking people to the curb, but I had some figuring out to do when I first started up this game. I imagine the manual gives some welcome direction and explanations on items or moves. That’s some dedication to the NES, though! Remember how game manuals actually used to be valuable for something, or when game even included manuals at all?
The difficulty of Almost Hero may surprise you. Typically I’ll run out of lives before the last level in more linear beat ‘em ups, but in more open structured fist fights like this one, the end came much sooner while I wandered and explored. You absolutely cannot succeed by trading blows with every enemy, though the game will boil down to that exactly if you’re not going to play nimbly. Weaving around enemies, taking advantage of throwing items, utilizing tons of flying kicks, and diving in for a split second to land a single punch is the way forward in Almost Hero. There isn’t much emphasis on paralyzing bad guys with elaborate combos or grappling moves. In this respect, your ninja character is more of a glass hammer than a wall of muscle. Careful play is rewarded. Attempting to smash your way through will earn you nothing but quick respawns and pilfered coffers. You’ll absolutely need to hang onto your cash to get those juicy upgrades.
Weighed against the game’s replay value is its steep difficulty. The level of challenge may be off-putting to those looking for a much more casual or laidback experience. That said, there’s a lot to explore in Almost Hero with its various areas, various upgrades, and unlockable portions of the game. You are able to keep your progress through a stage if you die, say, right before the boss. You can always return there after respawning from the starting point by re-entering the area and jumping past the baddies to get where you left off.
River City Ransom is not a game that absolutely everyone remembers from the NES but it is not the most obscure title from that system, either. Almost Hero doesn’t change too much about how Ransom functioned but it does add a new layer of pop culture awareness and referential levity. Almost Hero is a window into what games on the NES were like, right on down to the fact that it’s on a cartridge, sacrificing on the altar of accuracy its own accessibility to players whose ancient consoles are long gone.
My Personal Grade: 6/10
If you’re going to play Almost Hero, you’re going to play it for retro gaming accuracy. I’m assuming very few if any gamers who are into high definition, super-powered consoles are going to find themselves with this game, and in addition you need a working device to play the cartridge anyway. I can confirm that it will run on the Super Retro Trio, so I assume the same is true for the Retron 5, and I did get the title screen to flicker up on my original Nintendo before it went kaput. However, for those who love the NES and continue to regularly play retro games on it, Almost Hero may seem like a gift from above, especially if you liked River City Ransom.
So thanks again, Mega Cat Studios! You’re doing the Lord’s work.
Aggregated Score: 6.1
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