Sunday, August 26, 2012

The Abominable Dr. Chaos (or, "Goonies Did It, Goonies Did It!")

I’ve always had a morbid fascination with the work of Pony Canyon, the Japanese music label that took a brief detour into video game publishing.  With the aid of shady programming teams like Atelier Double, Marionette, and the dreaded Micronics, Pony Canyon was responsible for some of the most heinous NES titles to bear Nintendo’s seal of approval.  Who could forget the stiff sports spectacle that was Winter Games?  Or Super Pitfall, the wrongheaded sequel that made its ancient 2600 predecessor look state of the art?  Or Hydlide, the tedious, massively ugly adventure game that was instantly antiquated by The Legend of Zelda… yet was released three years later in the United States?

Dripping blood in an NES game?
Well, that's a plus. I guess.
I know I can’t!  Those wretched games were etched into my brain like a dirty word on the top of a middle school desk, and Dr. Chaos made the deepest, most jagged cut.  The game was released in response to the growing popularity of the action-adventure genre first made popular by Metroid, and was most similar to Konami’s The Goonies II, down to the close-quarters combat and the rather irritating first-person scenes separating one area from the next.  However, while The Goonies II leaned toward the comical, with its characters and setting lifted from the quirky Warner Bros. movie, Dr. Chaos took a darker turn, set in a creepy mansion teeming with man’s greatest crimes against God and nature.

(I mean, aside from other Pony Canyon games.)

You are Michael Chaos, and your mission is to tear your scientist sibling Ginn from the madness he’s created.  Your only weapon when you step through the front door of this house of horrors is a dagger. It’s better than the crappy rocks you were given to fight serial killer Jason Vorhees in Friday the 13th, but after getting nipped by the mice skittering around the floor for the millionth time, you’ll wish Michael had the foresight to bring along a nice shoulder-mounted bazooka or that awesome spread gun from Contra.  (Let’s face it, what game WOULDN’T be better with one of those?)

Look out, it's the reanimated corpse of
Thurston Howell! And he's got zom-boobs!
Alas, he’ll have to find his weapons of mass destruction in the first-person scenes, triggered by walking through one of the mansion’s many doors.  In keeping with NES tradition, the 3D in these scenes is awful, with plainly adorned rooms and movement restricted to ninety degree turns.  However, they’re the only place you’ll find the pistols, machine guns, and grenades you’ll need to have a shot at survival.  They’re also the gateway to the zones; long, linear gauntlets with lots of freaky monsters in the middle and an especially dangerous (if especially dumb) boss at the end.

Completing a zone gives you a piece of the game’s ultimate weapon, a wave cannon which you’ll use to put an end to the puzzling final boss.  Actually, all of them are pretty damned strange… you’ll tangle with everything from a stampeding pillbug to a ghost with a weight problem, keeping one hand on the controller while using the other to scratch your head in bewilderment.  However, Canbarrion is the star attraction in this freak show; a bobble-headed lion with a flaming mane.  Sadly, for all his potential as a savage death-dealer, he doesn’t really do anything.  No, Canbarrion is quite content to perch on his ledge, belching fireballs and disappointing players who expected the game to reward them after sitting through three hours of its often frustrating and unwaveringly creepy crap.

The least threatening lion since those guys
who sang "When the Children Cry."
So the game is a pass for NES fans, and I probably could have saved both of us a lot of time if I had put that in the first paragraph.  However, there’s something strangely compelling about Dr. Chaos, in spite of its flat, repetitive backgrounds, the Gordian-knotted pathways to each zone, and the shrill eleventh note you’ll dread hearing each time you open a door back to the interior of the mansion.  For all its flaws, the game seems like a more streamlined package than The Goonies II, which was stuffed with nearly twenty items and even more labyrinthine levels.  (Sometimes less is more, especially when there’s less to confuse you.)  Also, for those of you into that kind of thing, it’s one of the few NES titles that’s genuinely scary, with character designs straight out of your nightmares and nasty surprises hidden in some of those 3D rooms.  You’ll open a cabinet expecting to find a health potion inside, only to have a horrifying imp jump into your now-wet lap.

I guess Dr. Chaos was good for something after all, even if it was just a diuretic.