Welcome to another installment of Retro Weekend, the weekly feature where I play a classic game and write whatever I want about it! This week, I played Holy Diver, a Famicom-exclusive Castlevania/Contra hybrid that was clearly (but unofficially) inspired by heavy metal legend Ronnie James Dio. While head-banging my way through it, I started thinking about other music that could be turned into a video game.
If you instinctively started belting out the lyrics to the Dio classic when you saw what this week’s game was, then you and I are cut from the same cloth. But the name isn’t the only part of Irem’s “lost” NES classic that pays homage to the Lords of Metal. In terms of the concepts in the story as well as the characters themselves, Holy Diver is heavily inspired by Dio’s fantasy-heavy lyrics. I still can’t believe this never saw a release outside of Japan.
According to the manual, the story makes references to Slayer, King Crimson, and The Demon King of the Underground Dark Empire (Hell). The characters Zack, Ozzy, and Randy most likely refer to Zack Wylde, Ozzy Osbourne, and Randy Rhoads while the main character Ronnie is most certainly Dio himself. Okay, forget the speculation; it’s pretty clear this game wears its love of metal on its sleeve. I mean, you’re fighting in the 666th year of the world of magic against the Black Slayer. What’s more metal than that?
Callbacks aside, Holy Diver follows a similar formula to the NES Castlevania games (but mixed with shooting mechanics that feel like a riff on Contra.) Besides the obvious gothic-tinged visuals, you’ll progress though multiple levels, fighting through a wide variety of enemies and environmental hazards, and facing off against horrific boss monsters at the end of each area. The cool thing here is that Ronnie has access to some pretty awesome magic spells. Unlike the sub-items in Castlevania (which usually come in handy in very specific situations only), the magic in Holy Diver is a necessity, not only for taking out foes, but for traversing each level. Switching quickly between fireballs for tough-to-hit enemies to an ice spell that will allow you to walk across lava, then back to a powerful lightning strike becomes common as you get further into the game.
That is, if you can actually make it past the first level. Similar yet again to Castlevania, Holy Diver will pound your face into the ground, step on your carcass, and laugh at your misfortune. But I think developer Irem just really enjoys making difficult games. They’re best know for their R-Type games, and the DNA of that series is ever present in Holy Diver, by the way certain enemies move and shoot projectiles at you. Where enemies in similarly difficult games like Mega Man or Ghosts N’ Goblins seem to follow set patterns, Holy Diver’s enemies seem to act in much more random ways. It’s hard to know what to expect. In my time with the game, I barely made it halfway through, but the controls are tight, the music is great, and the gameplay is definitely fun. Just be prepared for expert level difficulty if you pick this up.
So yes, Holy Diver is good. But what I love most about it is that it’s so clearly inspired by heavy metal culture. In contrast, most games seem to be inspired by other visual media. The 8- and 16-bit generations saw mountains of licensed games based on everything from Terminator, to Animaniacs, to Last Action Hero… even the Domino’s Pizza Noid had a game of his own. That’s just how it was back then. But you rarely ever saw games that were inspired by music, or books, or different cultures. And I think the folks at Irem did a pretty good job cranking it to 11 with Holy Diver.
Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny
I know, I know, Tenacious D in the Pick of Destiny was definitely a musical and not just a rock album, but I don’t care! This would make a pretty hilarious game with intense bursts of color and sound, plus an obligatory variety of gameplay mechanics. Like the licensed games of old, the game would have source material they could follow through multiple levels, as JB and KG rise from bums to badass Rock Gods who take on the devil himself. It could be a 3D action game with some rhythm elements tied in during boss battles, similar to The Nightmare Before Christmas on PS2. In fact, thinking about this reminds of that weird mess of a game from a few years back, Brutal Legend. There was something endearing about that mess. A Tenacious D game would probably be a similar disaster, but it’s the kind of disaster I’d love to play.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band
Okay, I’ll be honest here, I don’t know exactly how this would translate. But when I sat down and thought about it, I realized how much I would love someone to at least try to pull this off. Like the album, the game would have to be full of diversity. Maybe every level would employ a different art style. Maybe the game could follow the fake military band on a journey across the world, with their music transforming the landscapes around them as a means of escaping the harsh realities of war. Actually, that sounds pretty cool. Someone get on this!
Deltron 3030’s self-titled album is the product of Kid Koala, Del the Funky Homosapien, and Dan the Automator, a hip-hop super ground that joined forces to create one of the best concept albums in the genre. You could do a couple things with Deltron 3030. Obviously, its futuristic concept makes me think of a spaceship schmup with some banging tunes in the background. Beyond that, the album actually follows a really deep, crazy story line that would fit perfectly into a video game world. Maybe make three characters to choose from based on the three members of the group? I don’t know, I’m not the developer… what do you think?
We’re reminded every day that video games are still in their infancy, as developers are constantly coming up with new ways to push the boundaries of the medium. Even though th gameplay of Holy Diver is familiar, it’s refreshing to see a 16 year old game that eschewed the typically trappings of Hollywood. Irem pulled this off in 1989, and that was 16 years ago. Just think what a developer could do with Sgt. Pepper today!
But seriously. Who’s gonna build the Kickstarter?