I am ecstatic that I can go online today and buy so many new games for old systems. Just a few years ago, the only options similar to this at least on the NES were reproduction carts – games that either never came out in the west or never came out at all put on a “donor” cartridge that the buyer generally had to provide, sacrificing a perfectly good game in the process, and having to wait a long time for a “fake” game to arrive in the mail.
This was the reason I once owned a Family Computer, the Japanese version of the NES. Not only were many games different in presentation or mechanics from their American counterparts, but I was able to play quite a few great games that just never made it out here. One of them was a little game called Holy Diver, a riff on the Dio album by the same name, rife with heavy metal references, and highly resembling Castlevania in its mechanics, and Ghosts ‘n Goblins in its gnashing-of-teeth difficulty.
You’re too goddamn hard and and you make me scream,
Just put my fist through the screen.
Grab my lighter,
Gonna set fire to my game machine,
The words out my mouth are obscene,
‘Cause I hate this game,
Now thanks to Retro-Bit, Holy Diver has a beautiful physical release alongside a collection of R-Type III and Super R-Type, two SNES shooters. (I won’t talk about them in detail since both games in that set were released here, other than to say the packaging is nice apart from a sloppy, off-center cartridge label.) For the first time ever, NES owners can suffer as I have had to suffer. Not only is Holy Diver quite a bit of fun, and would’ve been a mid-tier NES game had it been localized, but it is also one of the most frustrating and difficult games ever released on the platform.
The box is absolutely gorgeous. About the same dimensions as an NES box, but three times as thick, it is pitch black with nice gold print featuring only the title of game. Inside is a more traditional box with the original artwork, a protective cartridge sleeve, the game cartridge itself, and a little, mostly unhelpful but pretty manual. Also included is a card designating the number out of the limited 2,900 copies that was received, a little blank Holy Diver themed hardcover notebook, a large pin of both the Holy Diver logo and the protagonist Ronnie, a couple of art prints, and some stickers.
It’s not a bad deal at $59.99. That’s roughly ten bucks more than most cartridge reprints you would find on the internet generally cost. Apparently the first 1,000 cartridges are white, so I am guessing they are numbered individually or not included in the print run I received, as my cartridge was black despite it being numbered in the double digits. But that’s just fine by me – it’s a dark cartridge for a dark game.
As the story goes, you are Ronnie, no relation to Ronnie James Dio. It is the 666th year for the world of magic (this is all verbatim from Wikipedia), and the Crimson Kingdom is facing destruction at the hands of The Black Slayer, Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire. Realizing that his days are numbered, the 16th Crimson Emperor Ronnie IV decides to entrusts his two infant sons, Randy and Zakk, to his faithful servant Ozzy. With Slayer’s forces closing in, Ozzy, Randy, and Zakk escapes to another dimension, with the hope of eventually bringing light back into the world.
So yeah, the references are not subtle here, although they are also completely irrelevant. The long and short of all this is that you fight through six absolutely insane levels armed only with the ability to shoot fireballs about an inch away from your face, giving you firepower which extends about the same distance as Simon’s whip from Castlevania. You proceed in similar fashion, with extremely similar controls, and all the most annoying enemy patterns present throughout NES gaming history including a vicious take on the sine wave pattern of the medusa heads from Castlevania which relentlessly attack you in the first level and are even more annoying somehow. You can collect a variety of power-ups such as twin fireballs, the ability to freeze the stage and some of its enemies, and the ability to transform into a dragon and fly around spitting hot fire.
But none of this can help you. Whatever god you believe in cannot help you. By the end of stage three you will be cursing under and above your breath at each successively more difficult screen. The stages to follow become almost insurmountable unless you know every single enemy pattern and know exactly when to use your power-ups. You have the ability to continue infinitely from the beginning of the level if you get a game over, and you will end up planning out when it’s acceptable to lose a life so you can get back some precious health in order to finish the next difficult section. It is an exercise in pure skill, memorization, and patience, and one of the most grueling experiences I have had in gaming, bar none.
With that said, while the first few levels are fun, the strict nature of the difficulty quickly depleted this feeling for me. Much like Ghosts ‘n Goblins or Battletoads, I like the first couple of levels, but become too frustrated with the rest to enjoy it all the way through. It becomes more about bragging rights at a certain point than the joy of the game. Like life, Holy Diver is a relatively short, brutal experience, and only the most hardcore purists are going to have the patience to knock it off of their backlog.
Still, Holy Diver deserved a localization. The graphics are actually very nice, the music is sometimes good, sometimes forgettable, sometimes downright irritating. But overall, I think Holy Diver would have been accepted as something of a classic in the NES library had it been released back in the day, and lamented by children who rented it on a Friday, only to be stuck with the damn thing until Sunday, thereby ruining their weekend entirely.
Retro-Bit has made a nice collectible package out of an obscure and infamous Famicom title. Much like the R-Type cartridge, my Holy Diver cart has a bit of a label defect where it is clear that the label wasn’t applied smoothly, but everything else about it is pristine. Definitely recommended to collectors, or people who want to try the game – the original Holy Diver cart for Famicom approaches a hundred bucks on eBay, so this is certainly a better deal. Just expect to break a controller or two in the process.
[This review is based on a retail copy provided by the manufacturer.]