Sunday, October 25, 2015

Worlds of Blunder: Keith Courage in Alpha Zones

Bryan Ochalla of The Gay Gamer asked for more coverage of the Turbografx-16, so here's a review of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones!

(Oh wait, he wanted more positive coverage of the system. That might be a problem...)

Geez, even in monochrome it's kinda loud...
(image from
Keith Courage is a fascinating game. Not because it's good, because it really, really isn't, but because it's such a mystifying way to introduce Americans to the Turbografx-16, and because it was so representative of the system's library as a whole. Granted, most of the games on the TurboGrafx were better than Keith Courage, but nearly all of them had the same quirks. You know, the gameplay that was kept simple due to the limitations of the HuCard format, the oversaturated colors that made a Lisa Frank poster look like a tintype photograph from the Civil War era, and the characters that didn't click with a Western audience despite embarrassing '80s-flavored attempts at localization. It all leads to the conclusion that the TurboGrafx was a thoroughly Japanese game console which not only couldn't make itself comfortable in the United States, but actively resisted NEC's attempts to bring it to these shores.

Take for instance... well, Keith Courage in Alpha Zones. The game was originally created as merchandising for Mashin Eiyuden Wataru, a popular Japanese cartoon intended for young children. You can watch a little of the 1997 remake on YouTube, in case you're curious.

You're not fooling anyone,
(image from
As a throwaway game with a cartoon license, Mashin Eiyuden Wataru was benign, if slightly forgettable. But this became the pack-in for a costly next generation game console, and that was... harder to forgive. NEC tried to tack on a new, darker storyline, with some nonsense about a force of "Beastly Alien Dudes" killing Keith's father, but apart from new names, none of the characters in the game had really changed. Nintendo and its third parties turned localizations into something of an art form, with titles like Blaster Master being cleverly rewritten for an American audience, but not much effort was put into disguising Keith Courage's Eastern origins. He may look like a futuristic He-Man on the front of the box, but the moment you see squids bouncing along grassy fields and past pagodas, you know something's up.

Blue, blue skies, I see...
(image from
It's not just that the game was poorly suited to Americans... it was also tremendously dated, lacking the 16-bit punch players had come to expect after years of gorgeous arcade titles like Final Fight and Golden Axe. For all its failings as a game, the early Sega Genesis pack-in Altered Beast at least had the power to impress with its grotesque monsters, haunting gothic music, and digitized speech. Keith Courage in Alpha Zones has none of that, looking like a more brightly colored cast-off from an earlier era of gaming. Enemies burst into a puff of faintly-animated smoke when you strike them, and level designs are one-dimensional, with a light smattering of platforming and the occasional gimmick to differentiate one area from the next. Things pick up in the Alpha Zones, with an armored Keith hacking his way through more threatening aliens, but these stages have their own issues, like beds of spikes you can't see until you've jumped down a floor (possibly into them) and tireless spawning points for enemies, particularly the more aggravating ones.

Bonk, Bonk! Uh,
nobody's bonking.
(image from
The biggest problem with Keith Courage in Alpha Zones is that NEC learned nothing from it. The company kept repeating its mistake by releasing TurboGrafx-16 games that felt out of step with an evolving industry and weren't relevant to Americans. Later titles for the system included such curiosities as Somer Assault, Chew Man Fu, and Bravoman (who's still trying to find an audience in the United States, without much success). The Sega Genesis was home to arcade hits like Strider, Forgotten Worlds, and Ghouls 'n Ghosts that took years to find their way to NEC consoles... years after players stopped caring about them. The official TurboGrafx-16 mascot was Bonk, a rubber-faced, meat-craving caveman who lacked the international appeal of Sonic and Mario.

NEC tried one more time to find a Western audience with the TurboDuo, but that system floundered as well... perhaps because there was no room in the video game market after the launch of the Super NES, or perhaps because an aggressive ad campaign meant to spark fanboy passions ignited the wrong ones. However, it's just as likely that the games themselves were to blame, hitting the same cultural barriers that stonewalled NEC's success from the very beginning. The TurboGrafx line was never popular in the United States, and despite NEC's best efforts, it was probably never meant to be.

(thanks to Wikipedia and YouTube for assistance with research on this article.)


  1. Blargh. I hated this game back I bought a TG-16--which was not too long after the system was first released in the US. I mean, I *wanted* to like it, but I couldn't. It was just too ... boring, I guess. Thankfully, all sorts of other great games were released for the TG-16 in the few years that followed (a good number of turds, too), although even then I can't help but wonder what may have happened if the TG-16 had launched with Bonk or even The Legendary Axe as a pack-in rather than this snoozefest...

    1. A hastily localized game based on a cartoon is NOT the best way to introduce your game console, that's for sure. You do make a point... if the TG-16 had launched with Legendary Axe instead, it probably would have made a difference. I remember that game getting a lot of buzz in EGM, although I don't remember if it lived up to the hype. It would have been more appealing to an American audience, at least.

    2. I think launching with a better pack-in title could've helped the launch, but even then I think the console would've ended up third in the US console race. The system and most of its games catalog were just too weird/quirky/bad for US consumers, IMO.