I really want to start getting into some discussions of Polygons, i.e., early 3D-era games. It will happen soon... there are just so many pixel sprites to think about.
In the meantime, please hit play on the video below. The embed should already be queued up to the proper moment.
Do you realize how much wasted effort I put into searching for this commercial across the entire internet before I realized that it was in the middle of this huge compilation? I was so confused that this video was the only result I could ever get with the simple search term "Abadox NES commercial." Shame on me for not watching it sooner and figuring out that the commercial was in the midst of all these other hilarious marketing bits. I had almost convinced myself that the Abadox commercial I remembered from my childhood was a confabulation of my nostalgia-ridden mind.
I saw that very commercial on a Saturday morning in the early 90's when I was probably 6 years old, and I was completely enthralled, yet utterly grossed out by it. It was much gorier and longer in my memory, so seeing how tame it actually is today is pretty amusing to me. Regardless, it's still very wet and goopy for a plain, ol' videogame commercial. At the time, I remember thinking, "WOW, it's the monster from Terror Vision! I have to play this!"
How or why a 6-year-old knew what Terror Vision was is a mystery to me. It took me decades to remember this movie, despite it always being in the back of my brain. Scenes from it have popped up in surreal dreams and semi-nightmares here and there throughout my life. I'm pretty sure that my dad was incredibly lenient in terms of what I was allowed to watch at that age, with some exceptions here and there... for instance, I was forbidden from watching Robocop due to the intense, graphic violence, even though there was a cartoon, action figures, and a badass arcade game by Data East - all aimed at kids, more or less. So, like all disobedient and curious children, I peeked around the corner of the living room as quietly as possible and watched with horror as ED-209 blew that guy away in the board meeting, shredding his flesh into chunky bursts of corn-syrupy gore. In an instant, I was both traumatized, and fascinated.
I think it's so interesting how many Japanese videogames of the 80's and 90's were heavily influenced by Hollywood action, sci-fi, and horror movies. Of course, there are plenty of licensed games like the aforementioned Robocop, but original games like Contra are bursting with references to movies like Aliens. I mean, aside from the fact that Contra features facehuggers, xenomorphs, and other Giger-esque monstrosities, the characters' names themselves are derived from the names of actors from Aliens (Bill Rizer for Bill Paxton and Paul Reiser, and Lance Bean for Lance Henriksen and Michael Biehn). I'm also pretty sure that the Japanese artwork for the player-characters is inspired by the likenesses of Schwarzenegger and Stallone.
But we're not here to talk about Contra today. Were here to talk about Abadox (which, coincidentally, was scored by Kyouhei Sada, who did Contra's soundtrack as well).
My first experience with Abadox came into existence courtesy of our local Blockbuster Video. I had not yet fully convinced my parents to get me my own NES, but I was able to persuade my dad into renting one from the video store. Perhaps they wanted to gauge how responsible I would be in handling such cutting edge hardware as a child, or perhaps they wanted to know if it was really going to fry my brain as all the shock-news reports suggested. If I recall correctly, it wasn't that expensive to rent the system, although you had to put down a $100 or so deposit to ensure that you weren't going to steal or destroy it. It came in an odd, black, hardshell case, with gray foam inserts cut perfectly in the shape of the system and its accessories. Abadox was one of three games we rented.
While it may not have been specifically influenced by Terror Vision, Abadox is most certainly a product of the influence that low-budget 80's splatterpunk movies had on Japan. It isn't graphic by today's standards, but features plenty of guts, gore, and disturbingly grotesque enemies, bosses, and environments. For an 8-bit title, the variety is staggering.
Mmm, just seeing that rotting, pus-oozing, gory logo makes me HEAR the title screen noise. You know, that NES noise-channel grinding of undulating bass and static? I used to hit reset over and over just to hear that calamitous sound, and I probably watched the intro as just much as I played the actual game.
There is so much emotional weight and despair in those 50 seconds, it's almost too much to process for how simple it is. The slow entrance of the ship (very Nostromo-like), the melancholy synth music, the emptiness of space, the desperation of the alarm and outro music as the lone hero departs for the alien-engulfed planet... it's so cool.
Like plenty of other games at the time this was released, the story is minimal, and must be fleshed-out by reading the instruction manual. Basically, your home planet has been enveloped by a gigantic, parasitic alien, and you're tasked with responding to a distress call that is originating from within the mostly-digested leftovers of your home. Of course, it ends up being a damsel in distress - your world's princess. Lesser soldiers would call it a lost cause, but you descend to the surface of the infected plantet, prepared to enter the beast and destroy it from the inside out in search of the royal survivor.
If this sounds a bit like Life Force, you're not too far off - both feature vertically and horizontally-scrolling stages (although Abadox's vertical stages scroll downward, venturing deep into the biomechanical beast against the grain of the typical shump direction), and revolve around traveling inside a parasitic organism to destroy its core. In fact, it seems like a lot of gamers look down on Abadox as a ripoff, yet I would argue that this is an unfair judgment. The whole notion that Life Force takes place inside a planet-sized creature is something that was devised during the localization of Salamander. If anything, Abadox improved on a concept that was tacked on to a game that was already totally great before Western minds decided to mess with it.
This game is insanely hard, but it is a joy to play, as everything is consistent and unique. There's never a bland moment... The soundtrack comes across as a blend of driving, tech-metal-inspired anthems and dark, orchestral arrangements, with lots of interplay between melody and dissonance. The sound effects are perfect too - from the powerful sounds of the futuristic weapons to the satisfying bursts of the enemies as they explode, the entire spectrum of audio found in this game is fitting for the setting. Graphically, there is no shortage of weird creatures, and the bosses are something to behold, considering the limitations of 8-bits.
Playing this game now, I try to imagine the overwhelming horror that I would experience if I had the balls to embark on this mission alone. I sincerely try to envision the psychotic chaos that is going on inside this creature, and the thought of what it would be like is anxiety-inducing. I guess if your entire planet was destroyed and everything you knew no longer existed, there would be no fear of death, and charging forth into the guts of the very organism that devoured your home to at least try to obliterate it would be the only remaining option. That, or running away and slowly deteriorating into space madness.
As a kid, I did not have the patience to develop the skills necessary to conquer this game, but I wanted to see the end so badly. Luckily, the Battletoads issue of Nintendo Power in the summer of '91 featured Abadox in the Classified Information section, revealing a rather simple-to-enter invincibility code. I abused it all the way to the end of the game, fighting through level after level of intestinal, biomechanical abomination, until I reached the game's final run.
If you have never tried this game and are interested in actually playing through it, please skip the video, as it spoils the end. Otherwise:
Listen to that ever-increasing pulse, and steadily-rising high pitched whine. Even though I was cheating as a kid, I still sat in awe of the stark contrast between the final sequence and the rest of the game. Not only does it dramatically increase in speed very quickly, but it's such an intense rush. You've destroyed the parasitic core, you've rescued your princess and tucked her tightly under your arm in a protective bubble, and... oh shit, you have to get the hell out of this thing as fast as you can before it blows!
Yes, Salamander / Life Force did this too. That rush to escape might be more difficult than Abadox's because of the pistions that spring from the walls, but Abadox's is longer and more intense due to the tense audio and the stylistic representation of you flying back through every level in the game.
As far as 8-bit shmups go, I feel like Abadox is often overlooked, but I think it's a terrific example of a game from the early history of the genre that still feels very in line with many aspects of modern shmups today. Beyond the consistency in voice and vision as portrayed through the graphics, sound, and music, this game nails the overall feeling of the shmup (or at least what I feel when I play them) very well. In essence, the experience of the shmup is a lonely and discouraging one, regardless of game-era placement. As a genre, the storylines seem to mostly revolve around suicide missions and / or revenge for some great injustice - fitting structures for games that pit the player against overwhelming or impossible odds. You have no one to rely on but yourself, and you can't even trust your own feelings or emotions during the suicide missions that these kinds of games present you with.
If you really let this game take hold of your being, you will go through a cycle of confidence, failure, self-doubt, and acceptance. Facing a challenge with this level of difficulty could potentially push you to the brink of insanity, but if you're open to it, the experience will eventually stops being you vs. the game, and will reveal itself to be you vs. you - a true, deadly inner war. Like I mentioned with Legendary WIngs, through patience, pattern recognition, and learning, you achieve a synergy with the game and ride that battle trance out as far as it will take you.
If any of this sounds interesting to you in the slightest, please, play Abadox. If you find it's too hard, stick with it. If you don't have the patience, but still want to experience the insanity of this game, than by all means, abuse the invincibility code (A, A, up, B, B, down, A, B, start - then pause and unpause when the game begins). It will likely be worth it for you just to see how weird things get. But - give it another try without cheating once you're done. You may find that you get farther than you had expected when you try very hard at not trying at all.
Abadox was developed by the beloved Natsume (who is probably most widely known for the Harvest Moon series). If you aren't that familiar with them, and end up enjoying Abadox as much as I do, you will likely enjoy any of their other NES games, which include, but are not limited to Power Blade, S.C.A.T. (a localization of Final Mission), and Shatterhand (a localization of Super Rescue Solbrain). If you really like Natsume, you will flip out for their SNES games, namely Wild Guns and Ninja Warriors Again. God, I love Ninja Warriors.