Realtime action adventure!

  • Developer: Hudson Soft
  • Publisher: Hudson Soft
  • Release Dates: October 15th, 1985 (Famicom), August 1st, 2005 (Mobile), December 22nd, 2005 (Game Boy Advance), May 22nd, 2007 (Wii Virtual Console), March 13th, 2013 (3DS Virtual Console)
  • Available on: Famicom, Mobile (DoJa), Game Boy Advance (via Hudson Best Collection Vol. 3: Action Collection) Wii (via Virtual Console), 3DS (via Virtual Console)
  • Genre: Action Adventure

Poor Hudson Soft never quite gets the respect it deserves. As one of the major Japanese developers of the 80s and 90s, you’d think you’d hear more about their history and more YouTubers would be interested in covering their stuff, but they always seem to play second or third or even fourth fiddle to developers like Nintendo, Sega, Squaresoft, and Konami when talking about 8 and 16-bit consoles. The PC Engine has its fans (like me!), especially in Japan, but it didn’t take off elsewhere, which probably explains why there isn’t enough of a nostalgic market to farm for re-releases and easy YouTube views. It’s a shame too, because Hudson Soft really was firing on all cylinders as early as the 80s with games like Bomberman and Bonk’s Adventure.

The people at Hudson Soft really had a knack for taking ideas while they were still fresh and putting their own spin on them. Adventure Island (I know it was originally Wonder Boy, but let’s not get too deep into those weeds!) came after Super Mario Bros. but iterated upon it in a way that was pretty distinct even if it wasn’t as good. Star Soldier picks up where the likes of Xevious and Terra Cresta left off, and the unfortunately named Nuts & Milk takes elements from both Donkey Kong and Lode Runner to create a concoction that feels quite different in practice. Challenger, one of Hudson Soft’s earliest Famicom games, does something similar in that it pulls the “four scene” setup from games like Donkey Kong and Jungle Hunt and gets as ambitious as possible with it by incorporating the simplified skeleton of The Legend of Zelda a year before that game came out and not long after after Hydlide either. It’s a bit surprising it never left Japan considering it would have been a great addition to the first or even second year NES library for people looking for something slightly bigger to chew on. Though it’s virtually unknown outside of Japan, its home territory seems to have a lot of nostalgia for it and I can certainly understand why. Based on a cursory Youtube search, the most popular video for the game in English has 41,000 views, whereas the most popular Japanese video had 394,000 views with hundreds of comments!

It’s nice to see a game state its intent so clearly and quickly

The first screen you see upon booting up Challenger calls it a “Realtime Action Adventure” game, which while kind of vague, does describe what makes this game stand out. The action part is obvious as soon as you get into the first level, titled “Stop the Express!”, and watch as your daring protagonist (the Challenger, figuratively and literally) hops onto a moving train to save princess Maria from the villainous Don Waldorado. It’s quite the cool opening for a game of this vintage; most games would just drop you in with little or no fanfare, but Challenger feels like it’s trying to recreate something you’d see in a movie. According to Wikipedia, Challenger is both a homage to Indiana Jones (since he’s an archaeologist) and a reference to Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Professor Challenger character. While I couldn’t find any sources that corroborate this, it makes enough sense seeing as how Challenger very much wants to invoke the excitement of something like Indiana Jones, which had its second movie released only a year before Challenger came out. They could have settled for a black void of a background and zero storytelling, but Hudson Soft clearly wanted to create an experience, not just a game, and this cinematic start does a great job of capturing the essence of what makes action flicks exciting while flaunting impressive (for the time) techniques like smooth horizontal scrolling.

Once on the train, your task is to make it to the other side so you can get in and work towards the princess. Things like people, birds, lightning storms, and flying cars will try to interrupt you and one hit sends you bouncing off the train, so like any good action movie, the stakes are high. You can jump over obstacles and earn points for it exactly like you would in Donkey Kong or you can make your life a lot easier and throw knives to eliminate threats. Offering incentive to make things harder by asking you to narrowly avoid death at every turn is yet another way Challenger replicates its movie inspirations – Indiana Jones movies wouldn’t be as enjoyable if he never had any close calls, right? Once you make it to the front of the train after backtracking through the inside of it, Don Waldorado will push you out of the train, ending the first stage. What’s interesting is that control isn’t taken away from the player here; you can try to push him back or mash buttons all you want, but Don Waldorado always wins here. A bit of rising action and a speed bump for our hero really spices things up, doesn’t it?

As a quick aside, the first level of Challenger is actually based on a 1983 computer game (for the Sharp X1, MSX, Commodore 64, and ZX Spectrum to be exact) by the name of Stop the Express. Challenger is basically a remake of that game’s first level with three more levels added onto it. Stop the Express has a distinctly different visual style (that’s equally good for different reasons, if you ask me) and moves much faster, but beyond that, you can easily see how its core gameplay elements were carried over into Challenger. The fact that Stop the Express was on the Commodore 64 and ZX Spectrum just makes Challenger‘s lack of a release outside of Japan all the more baffling to me!

While level one is a great introduction, level two makes up the bulk of the game. Given the awkwardly worded objective of “Search Princess!”, the world is now your oyster as you wander the land in search of the princess’s whereabouts. This isn’t a brief gimmick or a simple matter of going in a single direction – the world presented here is huge and spans around 100 screens! This is pretty amazing for the time, rivaling the likes of Hydlide and blowing way past the scale of anything else offered at the time. 1985 was a big year for video games, but I’m quite surprised this game doesn’t come up more often as a notable release considering its uniquely ambitious nature. Imagine if Donkey Kong had you play through a chunk of The Legend of Zelda once you got to the second level – that’s pretty much what’s happening here!

During this level, in order to get to the princess, you’ll need to find your way over to various caves that litter the overworld. You can throw daggers and you now get a health bar, but Challenger is still pretty frail and will go down in a few hits. Most enemies are easily dealt with, but certain foes like the extremely annoying fire wisps that get stuck inside you and dish out multiple hits, can’t be killed under normal circumstances. The key to dealing with these enemies as well as the skeletons that guard cave entrances lies in defeating enough weaker enemies until a power-up drops. One of the power-ups instantly destroys all nearby enemies and the other one temporarily changes Challenger’s color, gives him a huge speed boost, and makes his daggers strong enough to vanquish any foe. While certainly not a conventional power-up, you may occasionally be blessed by the appearance of a sperm whale that’ll heal you as long as you stay on the same screen as it. Pretty creative way to handle healing if you ask me! Grinding for power-ups sounds like it’d be easy, but a strict time limit plus the ever increasing number of wisps means you’ll have to be efficient, pick the right spot to do it, and learn the lay of the land so you don’t get stuck in too many dead ends. Though level 2 may be huge, it’s not random nor is it aimless – your goal is always the same (find three different items in the caves to unlock the final level in the pyramid) and the layout of the map is always the same, so with enough practice, you’ll be able to formulate a consistent plan. It also helps that the areas are visually distinct, leading you through a suburb, some metallic looking areas, a forest, and a desert with a particularly nasty quicksand trap that’s a guaranteed death.

Find your way into a cave and you’ll get to play level 3, which is dubbed “Get Keyword!”. It’s a bizarre name considering you’re collecting keys, crowns, and rings, none of which are keywords last time I checked! Regardless, the point here is to make your way to the treasure by hopping across geysers while avoiding the wisps and other foes that roam the caves. There’s not much to these sections even on harder difficulties, but the catch that makes them interesting is that they require patience and consistent accuracy. Like in Spelunker, falling even just a bit too far will cause you to die, so you have to wait until the next geyser is possible to reach without it being too far down. Challenger’s jump is rather short and stiff as well, so jumping too early will result in death. Once you’ve grabbed the treasure, you still have to work your way back to the entrance, which adds an extra layer of pressure that makes your escape all the more rewarding. Aside from collecting the items needed to make it to level 4, these levels also replenish your time limit when navigating level 2, which means that you’ll have to dip into these levels every so often to prevent timing out. This is an interesting dynamic since it means players have to judge the importance of multiple resources – Is the player desperate enough for time that they’re willing to sacrifice health dealing with wisps while they look for a power-up? Does the player want to risk lives to score additional points by completing caves they don’t have to? There are even some caves that lead to instant death traps, making them a consistently risky but essential factor to have to indulge in. It can feel cheap to lose lives to traps like this, but the idea adds a level of exploratory thrills and unpredictability that Indiana Jones would be proud of. These parts are considered level 3, but since you have to do a minimum of three of them, I guess you could argue they’re stages 3, 4, 5, and so forth? Well, best not to sweat the details!

After a long, arduous trip to the pyramid, level 4 finally asks you to “Rescue Princess!” and settle things with Don Waldorado once and for all. Combining the feel of levels 1 and 3, this level is actually the closest the game gets to Donkey Kong mechanically. You’ll have to work your way up to the top of the level, slaying/avoiding enemies as you go, defeat Don Waldorado by throwing knives at him, and then free the princess from her cage. If this sounds a bit simple compared to what came before, that’s because it is; while you could argue it’s a bit of an anticlimax for being easy, it also serves as a bit of gratification and a reward for making it through the many challenges of level 2. After saving the princess, the game loops back to level 1 and automatically bumps the difficulty up a couple of notches. There’s something deep you could say about the fact that the characters of this game are stuck in a time loop where they rotate between captivity and freedom as well as life and death, but I’ll leave you to think about such ideas on your own time!

Difficulty plays a significant part in your Challenger experience, so much so that the game offers a whopping 16 different difficulty levels that affect every facet of the game. Lower difficulties reduce the amount of enemies in each level, increase your health total in level 2, and even remove enemy types entirely. In fact, if you put the game on the lowest difficulty, there are barely any enemies at all! Level 1 is a quick and easy jaunt to Don Waldorado and level 2 doesn’t even have the skeletons to block you from entering the caves, making the journey easy enough for anyone to make progress. Conversely, pumping up the difficulty can introduce new foes (like the flying cars in level 1), jack up the enemy count to frightening degrees, and make those nasty wisps all the more damaging. Even nowadays, games rarely offer this level of granular control over their difficulty, so this is yet another way Challenger was ahead of its time.

Decades after its original release, Challenger still hasn’t made it outside of Japan even when it was ported to the Wii and 3DS Virtual Consoles (no idea why it skipped the Wii U Virtual Console). Considering those services occasionally offered Japan-exclusive games, it’s surprising that they never bothered to port it over elsewhere, especially since it already has English text. I would have loved to discover this one back during the days where I was buying tons of random stuff off the Virtual Console. There was also a Game Boy Advance port through the Hudson Best Collection Vol. 3: Action Collection compilation, where it was included alongside Milon’s Secret Castle. No clue why we didn’t get any of those GBA compilations either, but they would have been perfect companion pieces to those “Classic NES Series” releases Nintendo did. Challenger even got a remake on Java-enabled mobile devices in 2005, but like most Japanese mobile games of that vintage, it appears to be lost to time aside from this press release that I was able to find. What a bummer that is, since the description of it makes it sound like a significant overhaul; it had cutscenes, a completely redone map for level 2, Don Waldorado was a full fledged boss fight, and there was a proper ending after level 4. All of that sounds great to me, so I’d love to see a re-release of this thing someday similar to those G-Mode Archives Nintendo Switch ports that we never get here in North America, but with Hudson Soft’s properties owned by modern Konami, it’s hard to be optimistic about such a prospect. If you ever happen to find a playable version of the mobile game online somewhere, please do let me know!

Challenger is yet another game to add to the pile of “misunderstood NES games that are actually good but people think are bad because they played them years past their ideal historical contexts” alongside games like Hydlide, Deadly Towers, The Legend of Kage, and Xevious. People playing it for the first time nowadays could easily walk away unimpressed thinking it’s just a worse Zelda with some other stuff, but when looked at in the context of 1985, it comes off as something really ahead of the curve. With multiple genres of play, a large world that takes exploration and practice to master, and a flexible difficulty curve for all kinds of players, it’s a game that impressed me in short order. Having played it for the first time for this post, I had a good time with it and I would have no problem recommending it to anyone who’s looking to explore an “alternate history” of the NES, an instance of what could have been if us North Americans (and Europeans) had a chance to get everything that Japan did. While we can never truly live in that original context, we can still make up for lost time by being open-minded now and giving the things we missed out on a proper chance. If that sounds like something you’re interested in doing, consider adding Challenger to your bucket list!

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