You would be forgiven for thinking the cover of Keith Courage in Alpha Zones looks like the cover to some sci-fi comic you’ve never read, but Keith Courage was only created for this video game, and even then, he wasn’t originally the star of it. In Japan, this game is an adaptation of the anime Mashin Hero Wataru which, despite being a show that presented itself with the trappings of a video game RPG, was adapted instead into a fairly standard platformer for this Turbografx-16 title. Believing that the U.S. audience would not be interested in playing a game about an anime they’ve never heard of, the game was reworked with a new title that no one had ever heard of either. I’ve rarely heard of situations where taking a Japanese franchise and reworking it into something different for American audiences worked, Power Rangers and Samurai Pizza Cats being the only ones that immediately come to mind, but Keith Courage in Alpha Zones certainly doesn’t do enough to be interesting on its own… although I don’t believe the pieces of it were ever that strong to begin with.
At least the plot English speakers were given was incredibly absurd. A meteor crashes into Earth and unleashes the forces of B.A.D., an acronym for Beastly Alien Dudes. As a member of N.I.C.E. (Nations of International Citizens of Earth), Keith Courage is tasked with taking down the bad dudes across a series of zones that involve him switching between his own strength and that of his Nova Suit, which is really just a Gundam-like robot but the game tries to veer away from that part of the game’s Japanese origins. Despite sounding like a sci-fi plot with a fairly large scope, the game really wasn’t able to sweep away the game’s origins as Japanese culture shines loud and proud throughout the game. Enemies based on beckoning cat figurines, shrines, and many other small aspects are left in tact, but if you play the game without reading the manual or tie-in comic, you aren’t really told about much of the story anyway, so it won’t really feel out of place.
While the game developers went through quite an effort to make the game appealing to the West, they didn’t focus on the the one part that certainly could have used improvement: the gameplay. The first half of every level involves you playing as Keith Courage, this most important member of N.I.C.E. having the limited skills of jumping and stabbing with a rather short range sword. The levels for Keith are tedious and generic, consisting of very typical left-to-right affairs that are interrupted by enemies that mostly just walk about and might bump into you if you don’t pay attention. There are a few enemies that fly in from above, but a single sword strike kills every enemy in these stages, making them even less of a worry. Really, these enemies exist as part of the real reason the Keith Courage stages exist: grinding for cash.
While there are some platforming challenges with a new hazard introduced in each new zone, these levels are actually about visiting some people in their houses to get health, blast bombs, weapons, or advice. Advice is the only free one of these, with the others providing their services for a cost. Blast Bombs are a pretty poor choice for spending cash as they barely help you out in the Nova Suit stages, but the weapons and healing are both extremely helpful but cost a pretty penny. It is possible you might be able to heal up just by gathering some coins by chance, but the weapons get more and more costly as you progress and they’re what makes the Nova Suit stages at least marginally more interesting and enjoyable. You will have to set aside some time to just stand in place and kill enemies to be able to afford the weapons you need or the health refills, and the game knows this, putting in areas where you can stand in just the right spot to make enemies infinitely appear to be killed for cash. The beckoning cat enemies essentially exist just to be killed repeatedly for coin since they’re hardly a threat but have high payouts. These segments are a major drag because of the focus on doing chores rather than playing the game, and when it does deign to challenge you with foes and platforms, its not even much of a challenge.
The Nova Suit stages are a bit better. Coin-grinding and shops are gone, the focus shifting purely to you killing enemies and navigating the maze-like underworld as you search out and destroy the zone’s boss. The Nova Suit has a much better sword than Keith, and the weapon upgrades only go towards its weapon, meaning Keith not only feels slower and less interesting than the suit, but much weaker too. The Nova Suit has a lot more enemies to deal with that approach it in different ways, but most of them are still dispensed with either a single slash or a few slashes, and that’s true of many bosses as well. Jump and slash and you’ve got the tactic needed to take down most zone bosses, but the game does think it’s giving you an interesting tool with the blast bombs. If you bought these as Keith, the Nova Suit can fire small blasts during battle, but the screen size is so small that you rarely ever need the range advantage and foes can disappear if they’re off-screen or won’t even take that much damage from the blast bombs if they do work. There is a bit of variety to the blast bombs, but they ultimately don’t add much to any battle.
Keith Courage in Alpha Zones does throw the player a bone with how easy it is to bounce back from death. While falling down a pit or onto spikes is an instant kill, continuing will just cut your cash and blast bombs down a bit and set you back at the start of the level with three hearts. Just like coin grinding as Keith, you can grind for health as the Nova Suit, alleviating concerns for that portion despite there being no Nurse Nancy waiting in a house like there is for Keith. Losing the cash hurts of course, but you’re going to have to stand in place and grind coins anyway, so it just makes the boring parts longer but not any harder. One thing that does sting though is how you navigate the underworld. The Nova Suit is moving down a lot in those maze-like stages, and it does so through multiple blind drops. Sometimes there’s safe ground below, but until you learn the somewhat repetitive designs of the Nova Suit sections, you won’t really be able to anticipate when you’re dropping to sudden death. Just another means of draining that all-important wallet! Thankfully, most levels just involve basic forward progression that would have been inoffensive but trite without the large millstones hanging around the game’s neck of grinding and blind drops to your doom.
THE VERDICT: Despite the story surrounding the translation of this game, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Keith Courage or Wataru going through these levels in the end. Neither one manages to be an interesting warrior, and while the Nova Suit or Super Robot has more enjoyable levels, they aren’t a huge step above the plain experience that is this game. The limited screen size and unneeded focus on grinding for the cash needed to be healthy and strong gives the player too much time to reflect on how little enjoyment they’re actually getting out of the experience.
And so, I give Keith Courage in Alpha Zones for the TurboGrafx-16…
A BAD rating. Plain levels, plain enemies, and with nothing to drive you forward but plenty to hold you in one place for an overly long period of time, it’s no surprise Keith Courage’s last adventure was this Turbografx game. Perhaps if the gameplay didn’t have to slow down for coin-grinding then it could at least be a generic action platformer with a few annoying death traps and a screen size that can’t properly contain all the action the game wants to have. In a strange way, the grinding also helps keep the game from being completely terrible, as you at least have a way to bounce back from death and are given the means to handle the moments were enemies are ridiculously abundant and aggressive. It’s in a sweet spot of not giving you enough to enjoy but not giving you enough to truly despise either.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Keith or Wataru going into the Alpha Zones, because this is not an adventure the most important person, the player, should go on.