I recently came upon a wonderful game called Mr Heli, or Battle Chopper in the US, or Mr. HELI no Daiboken on PC-Engine where I played it first, to be precise, or, minutes later, plain old Mr Heli again on ZX Spectrum! It’s a bit like Fantasy Zone meets multi-directional cavern shooter, and was originally a 1987 arcade game from Irem. When the ports arrived in 1989, I definitely remember the name, but that’s as far as it went – no interest in playing something like I could see in the tiny screenshots on the advert that did the rounds in the gaming magazines, when there were the wonders of Defender of the Crown, Xenon, Stunt Car Racer and Dungeon Master to experience on my fancy new Atari ST. And Mr Heli to a 17-year old… Now Battle Chopper might have been a different story!

Anyway, it’s a nice example of a game I’ve heard of but never had any intention of playing until I knew better. And then I loved it! There’s lots of others too, like Mega Man 2 then many other Mega Mans, or Balloon Fight and Dr Mario, also on NES, or the aforementioned Fantasy Zone and its variants. More recently (slightly) there’s Daytona USA and Sega Rally, or Super Mario Sunshine and Viewtiful Joe, and while we’re on the GameCube, I almost forgot my relatively new top three favourite game ever, Resident Evil 4! What’s a rarer breed, though, is games I haven’t played because I’ve just never heard of them. Now, obviously, there’s probably even more of these than the previous set of games, but because I haven’t heard of them they’re much harder to quantify! I can provide three examples though… The first is Victory Run, which I had no idea existed until I got my PC-Engine Mini for my birthday in 2020. And I just fell in love with its powered-up Out Run styled shenanigans immediately! Similarly, another racing game completely got me when a retro collecting friend mentioned getting an import cart of F1 ROC: Race of Champions on SNES. Sounded weird, turned out to be one of my favourite racers ever that I’ve now been playing solidly for over two years! And then we have Rod Land…

I really can’t remember where I came across Rod Land, but somehow it had completely escaped me between its release in the arcades in April of 1990, care of Jaleco, and some time in early 2021. Actually, it may well have been the appearance of its Arcade Archives release on Nintendo Switch – every Thursday at 2pm, I go to the switch eShop to see what this week’s Arcade Archives game is! What I can remember is that from the couple of screenshots you get with those, it reminded me of Rainbow Islands, and that alone made it worth investigating a bit more. Then within a few short steps across to some dodgy sites, there we were trying out a shiny new ROM of the NES conversion!

Given that the original is available on Switch, for mere Pounds no less, you may be wondering why I’m fannying about with the NES port. Well, it was partly being a skinflint, partly being scared of MAME, but mostly just another case of love at first sight, and I wanted some time to savour the NES version before the original stole my gaze forever, and several months later that’s where we still are! That said, I spent a good six weeks scouring eBay for the Atari ST version, which comes up occasionally, but I’d set myself a limit of £12 and we hadn’t got there when I realised the fallacy of getting into another conversion when I could get the real deal for half the price! I may have dabbled with the Commodore 64, Spectrum and Game Boy versions in the meantime though, and we’ll come back to them later.

Let’s have a quick look at the premise – cutesy single-screen platformer for one or two players about two fairies trying to rescue their mother from 40 screens of Maboot’s Tower after she got kidnapped. Our fairies, Tam and Rit, are armed with magic rods – presumably something to do with being in Rod Land – which first stop the baddies (ranging from gargoyles to squirrels to orange men with killer hats!) in their tracks, then once they’re trapped by its magical forces, you can smash them dead into the platform! If you’re lucky, they’ll leave behind a variety of power-ups like a kind of shotgun ball or dynamite, or some bonus fruit, and kill them all then you’re onto the next level. Sounds more Bubble Bobble than Rainbow Islands so far, especially when you use bubbles to get about on some levels, but they do have one more trick up their sleeves – a temporary magic ladder that you can pull out to get somewhere you couldn’t before, ideal for doing a runner or some surprise entrapment. Each level also has a load of flowers on it, and if you get to all of them before you kill all the baddies you’ll enter a bonus mode where the enemies are powered up, but if you kill them quick enough you’ll be on the way to an extra life. Every ninth level is a boss stage, and that will net you big bonus points… A lot going on, and I think a lot of the appeal is its nods to the very best of Bubble Bobble and Rainbow Islands, but also BurgerTime and Chuckie Egg and the like, all with a modern early nineties sheen!

The ports started appearing in 1990, with the NES version eventually turning up here in Europe in 1993, though I don’t think it ever got released in the US. Having still not actually played the original version, it’s a bit difficult for me to make too many comparisons, but I do know that for everything that got lost in translation, there’s a few liberties taken too! There are benefits to having not played it though, because apart from seeing a few screenshots that tell me there should be some glorious backgrounds that are just crying out for an equally glorious PC-Engine port, I don’t really know what else I’m missing out on yet!

What you are getting is just an absolute joy to play, with so many ways to play, especially if you’re after big scores. Killing monsters is one thing, but grabbing all those flowers beforehand is another, and if you want to get the most out of getting all those flowers, you need enough monsters left on the screen to spell out EXTRA with the letters they leave when they die, but that’s high risk because you’ll be against the clock. It controls like a dream, with magic rods and magic ladders all behind a single button press, and no mucking about trying to line up a ladder climb – you just go where you want to go, using direction and momentum in descent from platforms to not only escape from sticky situations, but also puzzle out getting at some of the flowers. There’s a bit of puzzling (but not much) to the bosses too, but mostly it’s about planning your moves while reacting to immediate peril, and it works perfectly. And smashing those monsters from side to side is so much fun, but there’s strategy there too, using them as a weapon or positioning yourself so you smash them on one side then throw them off the edge on the other. Very simple, and a lot to get your teeth into!

I’ve still not got all the way through, but I am very much into the score chasing mechanics, meaning a real sense of frustration when I accidentally blow up the last monster before I’ve got all the flowers! That’s as much of a challenge as avoiding getting killed by the patrolling enemies up to the first boss, and whilst deaths are usually going to be down to your impatience attacking a shark and getting caught out by a ghost thing sneaking up on you rather than bad luck, there are a few difficulty spikes. For example, not long after the first boss (a load of crocodiles moving up and down platforms spitting smaller enemies at you) it’s very easy to get caught out by these flying mosquitos that suddenly spray high velocity venom spikes or whatever it is they spray at you! For an arcade conversion from its era, it’s not massively brutal though.

Graphically, on top of Rainbow Islands, there’s another similar game that comes to mind here, New Zealand Story. Very bold and in your face colours, even though there’s not massive variety in the somewhat bland backgrounds or the platforms themselves, for all the clever ways they’re positioned on each level. The monsters are full of their own personality though, as are your one or two fairies, and everything is brought to life by clever animations, from stars appearing as you swing a monster about to the various swaying flowers throwing out increasing numbers of points as you pass by. There’s a cheery title tune on top of some very cheery sound effects, but it’s mostly upbeat beeps of various kinds that are mostly forgettable, as pleasant and breezy as it all is.

The Rod Land arcade game had a very special and unique feature – the sequel came with it! Just finish the game and there it is, a whole new story about an alien pyramid making off with your father, new characters and new level designs, although I don’t think there’s much different happening gameplay-wise. You could also get to it with a secret code, then go back again with another – pay your money, press up or down three times, off you go! This all led to three different endings too, one for the original game, one for the sequel and one for switching to one or the other with the code and beating an extra level that throws up. Sadly this wasn’t included in the NES version, but there were some nice hidden touches here too! On the options screen, you get to name your two fairies, but enter something rude like BUM, TIT, POO, NOB, SEX, etc. and you’ll make them blush! And ICH and EAT will let you jump between levels in the game. One of the options allows your fairies to jump, which also isn’t in the original, meaning stomping on enemies adds a new dimension of adorable violence!

I’ve only dabbled with some of the other ports, and mostly the Game Boy version, which only suffers from not being able to get a full level onto a single screen, making strategising about monsters versus flowers a little harder to keep track of. Otherwise, it feels just as good to play as the NES version. It’s a great looking game too, with some subtly shaded backgrounds hosting the most vibrant graphics you could hope for on a monochrome screen! Sounds lovely too, and I think I prefer its rendition of the theme tune over that of the Commodore 64, which definitely starts to grate a bit if you leave it on in the background; not SID’s finest hour! It’s not exactly vibrant either, with some classic C64 browns on a black background, and your character kind of floating around the place rather than moving around with any solidity and purpose. And despite that, it still manages to feel more sluggish than the other versions, including the Spectrum, which plays very nicely, sounds awesome in 128K, but despite some detailed sprites is completely black and white – no colour clash though!

One of the reasons I’m still messing around with video games over four decades on is that there’s still so much to discover, even if the surprises are gradually diminishing. But now and again they keep coming all the same, and Rod Land is the perfect example of a wonderful surprise that might have been hidden for most of that time, but is definitely out in the wild now! All the qualities of the single-screen platformers that preceeded it are there – especially that one more go addictiveness – but there’s so much to offer of its own that keeps stacking on the fun. And as well as the Spectrum version, which I think deserves a bit more of my time, I’ve still got the original arcade version to get to, but that isn’t far away now – I promised myself that as a reward for getting to this point, so you never know, we might be back here again sometime!