One thing about having a lot of games in your library is it's easy to forget what you have at times. Holy Diver for the Nintendo Famicom is one of those games that simply got lost in the shuffle. I picked up this game years ago when it could be had for a reasonable amount. I had heard it was a Castlevania ripoff essentially so I was intrigued to say the least.
I settled for a loose cart of the game. I love how small and compact the Famicom carts are. The name and cover art alone were enough to entice me to give the game a try. I've heard the game's story pays homage to several 80's heavy metal bands such as Dio, Slayer, King Crimson and Ozzy Osborne. Since the games' store is in Japanese I can't confirm this, but I could care less for the story as it's the gameplay that I'm most interested in.
Irem is one of those game developers that I wasn't as familiar with back in the NES days. I was never a fan of R-Type, the only other game from Irem that I had heard of. However Holy Diver is one of those sleeper type games that deserves to be played by a wider audience. I knew once I put the cartridge in my Famicom A/V console and the title screen loaded I was in for a treat.
To me it's pretty apparent that this game borrows a lot of ideas from Castlevania and while some may say it's a direct ripoff, I feel as if the game has it's own charm and frustrations. Your character attacks with some sort of magic projectile attack. In addition to being able to attack horizontally, he can also attack vertically. This comes in handy in many areas. As you progress through the game you'll also pick up items that grant you additional magic upgrades. This magic consumes various levels of Mana. There is a gauge just below your health bar in the upper left corner of the screen. I've learned that you have to be smart when using your Mana as it doesn't replenish all that quickly in most cases. Enemies will drop small blue crystals that give you 2 points of Mana, but many of the spells will require 4 or more Mana points.
When you pause the screen you'll see the items you've collected as well as the magic spells at your disposal. You start off with Twin Fire, this spell gives you an extra projectile to attack your enemies with. It only uses 2 points of Mana for each attach. When you press the Select button on your controller you'll essentially turn your magic on and off.
The game looks beautiful despite your character lacking much in the color department. I should add that the normal gray/white color of your character changes to shades of blue when you have your magic activated. The animation is pretty smooth and the colors are vibrant. There is some parallax scrolling such as the beginning of the 2nd level. Do these winged creatures remind you of the ones from Altered Beast?
Unlike the sluggish Simon Belmont in the first Castlevania game, your character in Holy Diver is a bit more fluid. I feel like the jumping motion isn't as stiff, though you still can't jump onto or off of steps or staircases.
Level design is pretty cool from what I can tell. I still haven't been able to get past the 2nd stage, but it appears the level design gets a darker look the further you progress. Lets make no mistake about it, this game is hard. Throw your controller on the floor and yell at the screen hard. However it's fun. Despite me not making it very far, I kept coming back for more. Thankfully you have unlimited continues, however the levels are broken up into 3 sections and if you continue you start back at the very beginning of the level. There are several religious undertones in the game so it's no surprise this game never made it to the NES.
Holy Diver isn't a perfect game, but I think it's a lot of fun. I hate to see that the game is now close to $100 on the secondary market, but I've seen a NES fan translated reproduction online. I believe it's also going to be one of the games on the forth coming Retrobit plug and play console. This game needs to be played in some fashion so when you get the change give it a try...and another...and another. It's a frustrating game, but give it some time and I think you'll enjoy it as much as I.