Friday, August 22, 2014

I saved for months to buy Journey to Silius. Months of allowances, birthday money, and couch quarters clutched in my fist, I strutted into Babbage's 1 a financial titan and strutted out with an awesome new NES game. There's a solar eclipse AND robots on the cover--how could it not be awesome?!2

I could have cried. The game--purchased with hard-earned monies--was harder than Ron Jeremy's... rock collection. The protagonist's teensy pop gun barely dented the cybernetic horde. I played Silius twice, never passing level 1, before putting it away for good.
I'll be back... with a different title.

The irony is that Journey to Silius, the greatest failure of my young life, is a decent game. Developed by Tokai Engineering and released by Sunsoft in 1990, the game's difficulty is owed to its hectic, meandering development process. It started life not as a generic, platforming shoot 'em up, but as... The Terminator. Nintendo Power published the snipped at left in July of 1989.

It doesn't take CSI: Miami to see Nintendo Power's screenshots match Silius' box art. Most likely due to the prohibitive cost of obtaining movie licenses, Sunsoft dropped the in-progress Terminator title and re-worked the game into Journey to Silius. The Terminator's fingerprints3 remain all over Silius, but none more prominently than the unused graphics (below) still in Silius' game's code:

Perhaps due to this hectic development, Journey to Silius has only 5 levels. It's contemporary Super Mario Brothers 3, by comparison, has 90 levels. To compensate for their lack of length, developers made Silius ridiculously hard4. The learning curve is steep, but once a player plateaus, Silius offers a fairly enjoyable, nice-looking game.

James Cameron gon' sue somebody.
Upon pressing start, Journey to Silius opens with a cinematic which puts to rest any doubts that it began life as The Terminator (at right).

Our protagonist, Jay McCray (Jay McCray? Really?), is on a quest to to avenge his father and save the world5. Level 1 sets Silius' template. Jay McCray runs right. There are 1) ground-based walking/jumping robots, 2) flying/shooting robots, 3) ground-based booby traps, 4) a mini-boss, and then, directly after said mini boss, 5) the stage boss. This basic formula repeats without variance until the final level.

Oh what trying times, when ruffians graffiti
brick walls with pictures of penguins!
Jay starts with a pistol and a shotgun. Aside from the pistol, each of the weapons Jay picks up along the way deplete his Gun meter. And also aside from the pistol, the weapons Jay collects are mostly useless. Mostly. Blue capsules replenish gun power, and red (rare on the order of two Yeti square dancing under a blue moon) replenish health.

After dying more than Bill Murray in Groundhog Day, the player learns a valuable lesson (good for both Journey to Silius and with the ladies): take it slow. Enemy AI is simple, and the only way Jay will ever take damage is if you rush through a stage and allow multiple baddies to accumulate on screen. Move slowly, blast all robots as they appear, and you'll find the game much easier.

Get Down!
Guarding the Level 1 boss is a cannon which alternates between high and low shots. Winning here is an exercise in alternately shooting, ducking and jumping. Like most new enemy patterns in Silius (of which there are thankfully few), you'll blow through a few lives getting the hang of it. The vanquished boogie cannon drops a bubble-looking thing emblazoned with the letter M. Although not eminently clear, grabbing this 1) gives Jay McChicken a Machine Gun, and 2) Jettisons you to the Boss fight without refilling your health or gun meters.

Thankfully, the Chopper boss at the end of Level 1 offers little challenge. It crawls onscreen, hovers for a moment, then poops a few easily-dispatched monkey robot things. Post monkey-dump, the Chopper drops down low enough for Jay to blast the crap out of it's glowing eye with his shiny new machine gun. Cue explosions.
SECOND VERSE! SAME AS THE FIRST! Out of the penguin-scrawled streets, Jay McEmouse infiltrates some sort of futuristic sex dungeon. The robots look new, but the mechanics remain the same: go slow and pistol whip every damn robot.

For some of the aerial bots, judicious use of the shotgun's spread range can get you out of a jam. Other than that, it should be smooth sailing until you reach the giant walking robot which serves as the stage miniboss. It's vulnerable in it's domed head. Use the machine gun and it'll drop before it walks to your position. Pick up the Homing Missles and on to the Boss!
Again, not Terminator-ish AT ALL.

Level 1 was da choppa, so of course Level 2 is a tank. The assault here comes two ways: the pink orbs lobbed from above and a jutting claw. The pink projectiles mostly miss Jay Vajayjay as long as you stand still. Jump and shoot the tank's glowing heart. The claw, however, does mondo damage. When the tank pauses, duck. It's a tricky battle, splitting attentions between the projectiles and the claw, while shooting the tank's heart. Of all the game's boss battles, this is probably the most difficult. The good thing about Silius is that dying on a boss re-spawns Jay at the boss screen. Don't get overly complacent, though, the game only offers 3 continues before it's game over for good.

"I feel like we've met before..."
If you'd forgotten Journey to Silius was once The Terminator, Level 3 whips out it's provenance and smacks it across your face. Not ten seconds in, you're confronted with what is clearly a T-800 endoskeleton. Awesome? Yes. Intimidating? Uh-huh. Difficult? Not in the least. The T-800s littering Level 3 move slowly and rarely shoot. Somewhere John Connor is playing Journey to Silius, softly sobbing over his own battle scars.

Level 3 also presents one of the rare instances where a secondary weapon comes in handy. Gun turrets line the halls here. They'd be a pain in the ass if you didn't have... oh, I don't know... HOMING MISSILES! Hang back and blast those mothers from a safe distance. By this point, the game's challenge has plateaued. Levels 3 and 4 can be completed on autopilot.

The miniboss is a robo-mech which shoots an array of bullets, but, again... homing missiles, homes. Pick up the Laser Beam the mech drops and jet off to the Level 4 boss, also known as the, "Wow, we did not playtest this boss even once" boss. Why such a peculiar name?

THIS is a boss? Really?!

Because there's a massive safe zone near the bottom of the screen. Jay McLeno could lie down and take a nap, if he wanted. So here, we simply duck near the front of the platform, jump after the middle bullet fires, UNLEASH HELL, and repeat. The battle is easy bordering on disappointing. I bested this laser room boss on my first try.

Listen, if you've read this far, you get the idea. There's walkie dudes. There's flying dudes. Jay McLovin blasts them all to Electronics Hell6. Oddly enough, Journey to Silius mixes its metaphors here and lets in a Xenomorph. Go figure. The miniboss is a weird floating head thing. The new weapon is a Grenade Launcher. The Boss is a golden alien who shoots lasers from a turret. It telegraphs its every move almost a full second in advance, so again, stupid easy battle.
Is that a fondue shooter?
Man I hope it's fondue.

After grinding through levels 3 and 4, Journey to Silius rewards those stout souls whose fortitude has carried them to the final level by presenting something completely new. Level 5 has no enemies. The screen auto-scrolls. The change is a jolt of pleasant surprise... which is quickly squashed by frustrating level design. There's waterfalls of lava. There's moving platforms. There's giant shipping crates which fly from the sky. There's steel presses which want to squish poor Jay. All of them quickly kill the player. Touchy controls and poor hit detection, added to the scrolling screen, make Level 5 of Journey to Silius is the epitome of "NES Hard." Traversing the level is all trial and error. Hope you have a few continues in reserve.

Journey to Silius is a decent platformer. The level design isn't as varied as something like Mega Man or Castlevainia, but the updated baddies in each level at least keep things interesting. Compared to some NES dredge (Cheetamen), Silius is a Nobel Prize Winner in Awesome. The graphics and sound design are top-notch. I found myself humming the Level 1 theme well after I'd thrown my controller across the room put my controller down. The game is defined, however, not by it's Terminator heritage or its impressive atmosphere, but by loose controls, poor hit detection and a steep learning curve. Silius is a top-teir NES Hard game. Three controllers of impossibility for Journey to Silius. Think Ninja Gaiden but less fun.
3 Controllers

1 Babbages, I know. I may as well have said I was scrawling antelope on a cave wall, lit by the fire  I just invented.
2 In the pre-internet, pre-Metacritic Dark Ages, we had to judge games by their covers.
3 Wait, do T-800 cybernetic organisms even have fingerprints? Nevermind, just go with it.
4 There's a sex joke somewhere in there, but I'm too lazy at the moment.
5*cough, cough* Ninja Gaiden *cough, cough*
6Also known as Comcast customer service.

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